Several of us rabblers took the annual pilgrimage over to Boomtown Fair back in mid-August, to join the hordes in some of the finest acts of collective tomfoolery, nonsense-jockery, gobbledygookery and wibblywobblywondery witnessed this side of that time Jesus was performing magic tricks at the wedding in Cana.
The last time we made the jaunt over was back in 2012 and 2011 before that. Since then the capacity of the site had upped massively. The festival takes place in a 50 acre natural amphitheatre, and in a boring fact of the day: General Eisenhower used it to rally the troops before the the D-Day landing. Our first year there, we remember pitching our tent on the side of hill and spending a morning shoving grass down each others’ jocks beside the camper vans. This had been the very edges of the festival and now had been pulled into its centre as it expanded outwards with whole new districts and areas to explore.
For 2014 word had it that the festival had jumped from 26,000 up to something like 40,000. The festival has its own dramatic narrative rolling along inside that explains away its growth in short fairy tale like texts. A few years ago saw aliens invaded the land, bringing with them their Arcadia space ship, ripping holes into the Boomtown dimension and dazzling denizens of the town with their mental pyrotechnics. This time 12 months ago, there was an election upset as the mayor was flung out of office with title passing to the voodoo queen Ms. Burrita Jose of El Barrio Loco and the Latin Quarter.
The yarn this time was how the old Mayor had traveled back in time and planted gold in the hills and struck a bargain, selling his predictions for a power sharing future with the poor elements of the city now made rich. Skipping forward in time – he’d returned to a changed present where he was handed the title of Sheriff of the Wild West.
That’s a lot to get your head around, right? It’s sort of how Boomtown rolls, nine distinct districts split into an uptown and a down town – with dozens of smaller venues potted about each of them, massive marquees and sound systems catering for the bigger acts and enough over the top decor to to fuel about two hundred of your average corporate festivals.
Heading over was a doddle, we flew out of Belfast, landed in Southampton and took a five minute train that put us in Winchester and on one of the Boomtown shuttle buses. Slightly haunted by memories of long queues the years before, our approach the gates was a grumpy one on the Thursday evening. The crowd moved slowly, many of them already lubing themselves up by tucking into their gargle all too soon, possibly in an attempt to get their load down to the 16 can minimum. This was one of the few complaints we had with the festival – people were showing up with slabs of 18 cans and the security wouldn’t let them in until they got rid of 2 of them. A bit OTT we reckoned. Anyway, thankfully the wait wasn’t that long and we were in and searching for a camping spot. Unlike other festivals, that coral and goad you about the place, Boomtown is fairly hands off. You can camp where you want, within reason of course.
Boomtown’s a nutty visual feast, the party goers seize on the themes offered up. During the day, tonnes of roving acts pass about the city One of our highlights from years past was this roaming puppeteer, he had obscured himself into a rucksack and directs this rotten looking little gnome of a creation into conversation with passersby. Basically, his puppet is a caricature anarcho-punk alkie roaming around the festival, scaring kids, scabbing rolls and swigging out of a flagon. Wonderful stuff.
When it comes to venues, shouts have to go to the ASBO disco, with its “no hats, no hoods, no entry” door policy and unruly ruckus hardy music being dished out to the massif . We didn’t spent as much time there as previous years, but it always summed up the spirit of the festival for us. It was this venue if we remember correctly, that had a burnt out Tesco sign around the back of it the year after the infamous Stokes-Croft riot in Bristol and a police car driven through the roof as if discarded after a round of some pretty stuntastic joy riding. It’s that carnivalesque, world turned upside down theatrics that defines the festival for us.
We’ll return to say more about general festival vibes later but this being a music festival, we feel it best to get some reviews out of the way lest we forget we ever saw anything after all them tent session antics.
Under under some ill-informed nostalgic notions, we decided it would be best to go see an act that we weren’t even too bothered with in our youth, so we stood in the pissing rain and watched Shaggy and his band hint at getting the crowd going for 45 minutes before realising our folly.
Huddled under a tree and getting constantly knocked from our raised-root-perch by the slip-sliding hordes, we gave him a fair old chance, hoping for something promising. Alas, it wasn’t to be, as he made vague attempts at all that audience participation shit – “I can’t hear you!” and “this side is better than that side!” It’s pissing rain mate, please just fucking entertain us.
“This is how I like my ladies… Moist”, he quipped, all the while tempting us with snatches of his hits, but never actually playing them. We’d had enough so we joined the gradually dispersing crowd to go and investigate all the lesser-known, and by and large infinitely more impressive acts in the smaller venues hidden around the place.
Rumba de Bodas were a great band we caught on one of the smaller stages was, from Italy, this high octane theatrical swing gypsy jazz group. The deceptively petite singer had an amazing voice and the energy was unreal. We got their CD but it doesn’t do them justice at all.
We caught those Stanton Warrior lads in one of the bigger ‘rave’ tents on Friday night. The light show was brilliant, the tunes were pumping and they ended up with a brilliant mix of the Beastie Boys hit, Sabotage. Good buzz.
The legend that is Solo Banton was hosting a showcase of some other fella’s tunes so it wasn’t his usual set, but he gave us all a good laugh by actually freestyling, a refreshing alternative to the usual pre-rehearsed stuff you get these days, and to prove it he incorporated lyrics about almost being sent arse over tit by all the cables on stage, and pointing out what people in the crowd were wearing and what luke warm pissy beverage they happened to be supping. The only downside to this gig was the white DJ attempting to speak to the crowd in a Jamaican accent. What the fuck?
Sister Nancy is a veteran Deejay from Jamaica who stole the show and absolutely destroyed the Lion’s Den with her repertoire of signature tunes and unmistakable dulcet tones. A big lady with a big voice and an absolutely huge stage presence. The crowd nothing short of loved her. Definitely a contender for best act of the festival.
While we’re on veteran female warriors from Jamaica, Lady Saw smashed the Lion’s Den to smithereens with a performance that sat like a raw anecdote to each and every misogynistic line dancehall has ever produced. One of the highlights of this was her latest single, ‘Pretty Fingers’ – an anthem to female self pleasure and masturbation. She really could rock a line between demure femininity and straight up sexual aggression – dragging on stage some poor looking madoutofit, then decking three other female audience members out in high heels and making them walk all over him in a lesson in dominance. On the gentler side, her performance of a ‘Love Hurts’ and ‘No Less A Woman‘ about infertility brought a lump in the throat to more than a few watchers.
The African tribesmen turned world-music legends that are Tinariwen were up in The Old Mines, which appeared to be where most of the folk (or thereabouts) acts were playing. They had an amazing stage presence with their Saharan head dresses and robes, swooning bluesy Arabic tunes, and infectious clapping and singing. They stopped to ask the crowd were they happy with the music at one point, which was pretty nice of them. One of them was a very impressive dancer, while another was beating out a rhythm on some bizarre round thing that didn’t quite look like a drum. Great stuff.
You know at each festival you develop a set of reference tents, ones you’ll just constantly fall back on as old reliabes. For us at Boomtown, the Bassline Circus and Old Skool Garage had that lucky charm.
In a ones-to-watch sort of moment, Amy Becker who we’d never come across before slew in the Old Skool Garage early on Saturday. It was a real: “right, that’s it, festival highlight done – let’s go home” set, tearing through rugged bouncy bassline to Rnb and dark garage standards like More Fire Crew. The place was buzzing. While other years we’d literally spent the weekend dancing on the tent walls to the crisp sounds of UKG, after Becker’s tent nothing that came on in there could quite match. That didn’t stop us feeling sorry for ourselves that we missed out on the comic MC antics of those pirate radio rapscallions People Just Do Nothing through venue confusion.
The Bassline Circus is probably one of the dancier ones, fronting immense line ups. Bristol soca squadron Jus Now got the place jumping with their dance routine heavy audience participation and shout along chorus lines. They were followed up by one of our heroes but catching a producer of the calibre of Zed Bias chucking out what seemed like the same old tired big room mix he’d played at Outlook 2013 was a bit deflating. Overhead trapeze artists whirled over the heads of the crowd in a display of acrobatics that left the young fellow who was tripping balls beside us in an even more unsure state.
Boddika disappointed on the Friday as the last act in the Bassline Circus whether it was his set or the fact that the sound kept being inched down a notch each time the music was flipped to bring the the tent to a close. It just led to a relatively sedate feeling or lack of interest developing.
Late on Saturday night we saw Manchester dons Dub Phizix and Skeptical make absolute bits out of the Bassline Circus. The place was literally electric with a weighty selection of grimey rollers right over to some kuduro. It was so high-octane that one of our own had to get the fuck outside for a proper breather.
Sam Lee and his band are quite interesting, taking traditional British songs from old travellers and traditional Scottish singers and the like, and accompanying them with all manner of instruments, from trumpets, cellos, jaw-harps and shruti boxes, to the more traditionally staple fiddle. His album is very impressive, ‘On Yonder Hill’ being a firm favourite.
On the day though, it was a bit hard to get past the visual elements of the performance to actually pay attention to the music (ridiculous amounts of alcohol may also have been a factor in this). There is the distinct possibility that this is because, coming from Ireland, we’re used to traditional singers closing their eyes and getting on with it, as opposed to waving their arms around like Mariah Carey and doing strange little dances. How and ever, all it seemed to do was give the music a slight air of cynicism and pretence. Our advice: if you’re going to go see him, keep your eyes closed. Either that or buy the CD and listen to it at home. Or, if you happen to be Sam Lee, stop caressing the air like you’re about to make passionate love to the invisible man and just sing the bloody songs, because they’re not half bad.
Eliza Carthy was up in The Old Mines just after Sam, and she played a blistering set, complete with 12 piece band and some stomping tunes. This woman is a powerful player and singer, with a slight air of mayhem around her, which makes sense if you consider her somewhat royal-folk heritage. Her father, folk singing legend Martin Carthy, once stated that punk was folk’s closest musical relative. Check her out if you haven’t already.
We finally got to catch one of our favourite bands in the flesh – The Delegators from London, in the Hidden Woods. Lead singer Janet Kumar was a ball of energy and works it like Tina Turner while the band blast out smooth motown and rocksteady grooves, it’s obvious the band love playing gigs and getting a crowd dancing.
The Uptown Ska Collective which we inadvertently stumbled across on our bleary travels, are a motley crew of around ten musicians from London, who like to get together and bust out the old ska classics from Studio One and the rude boy’s heyday. We also caught some of the Toasters who were blasting out all their hard ska tunes to an appreciative crowd.
Unfortunately one of the main stages by the Town Hall was closed down due to the windy weather, so we didn’t get to see The Trojans, We heard most of the bands due to play on that stage ended up playing elsewhere in the end, but there was no way of knowing where they might pop up.
One year, the taxi driver who brought us out to site told us: “I hope you don’t get rain. that whole place is basically just a load of chalk. You’ll be bolloxed.”
This year it rained. The weather was a curse all weekend, the festival site is just seemed to accumulate mud and water – with punters perfecting some sort of duck waddle that meant you shimmied along never taking your feet off the ground. All the while watching the price of wellies sky rocket.
In fact it not only rained, we were greeted with a damn hurricane. Waking in the tent on Sunday morning was probably the closest thing to the feeling of being stuck in a wind tunnel. The odds on the chances of this being game over for the festival were rearing up their ugly head. Praise to the session gods, but a few hours kip later and the worst of it seemed to pass.
We caught both Culture Shock & Inner Terrestrials in one of the Devils Kicks Dancehall, pretty much back to back. Worth noting that this tent was decked out with anti-fa logos and more. Some of our gang had been trying for days to meet up with the punks and head-the-balls from Belfast. We decided to send a note to Dick Lucas, anarcho-punk legend and singer with Culture Shock to see if he could locate them. We tried to get the note passed by a few people hanging out behind the barriers and they were reluctant, seeing us trying to persuade this hairy looking dude for a while, another woman grabbed the note out of his hand and made sure Dick got it.
He looked at it quizzically, brushed his hair behind his ear, straightened his fogged up glasses and said “I don’t know what this is about, but somebody’s looking for The Belfast Punx, so if you can go to front stage right… I don’t know what’s gonna happen, maybe you’re gonna get stabbed!” Haha, thanks Dick, well we never did find those pesky Norn’ers… Culture Shock were great of course, as were Inner Terrestials, especially their rendition of the well known pro-Traveller folk song ‘Go! Move! Shift!’.
We spent some time chilling out in one of the smaller tents in the Wild West, which looked exactly how you would imagine: saloons, town-stores, brothels, cowboys, sheriffs and crippled town alcoholics all helped make the place look and feel the part. Anyway, we caught this folk rock fusion good-time-fun-band called Love Street in said saloon-fronted tent. We were starting to get pissed again and everyone was dancing. They gave a free cd to everyone there, which was cool. Next door, in a Wild West style burlesque bar, some wonderful ladies were showing off some of their wonderful selves, accompanied by an unreal piano player who was giving it socks, saloon-style. What a way to ease yourself back into a boozy afternoon.
We caught Hollie Cook and her band, also in the Hidden Woods and she was magnificent, as we arrived she was playing her tribute to Ari Up of the Slits, Come Let Your Fire Blaze, and she treated us to more tunes from her new album along with lots of old favourites. This woman has a beautiful and bewitching voice, and the whole crowd was in love with her by the end of the gig… either that or they were just off their tits.
The music was stopped at 12 sharp on Sunday night and it wasn’t long before some strange rumbling started, much like that scene in Lord of the Rings after Pippin fucks up like a royal idiot. Some of us thought it was a generator rumbling, some of us thought it was sleep deprived hallucinations, but on further inspection it turned out to be that staple of festival endings – mongos banging on things. It went on for hours. Cars, walls and trolleys all got the shit beaten out of them, but mainly it was the metal barrels, used for rubbish bins around the festival site, that became makeshift drums in this apocalyptic, orgiastic, primordial drum-circle.
There was one downtown and another more ominous sounding one up the hill. A gang of us wandered up to check it out just before sunrise, and what we were met with cannot be unseen. It was like a David Attenborough documentary about chimpanzees, or that scene in 2001 a Space Odyssey with the monkeys learning to use tools. Human beings who had apparently reverted back to neanderthal state, doing whatever they could to satiate their incessant hunger for repetitive beats. Gathered around upturned bins, banging, banging, banging. A constant stream of bleary-eyed acolytes arriving up the hill, upturned bin in hand and a trail of rubbish behind. This truly was a bizarre, scary and fucking hilarious experience. A definite highlight.
Will we be back? For sure. Boomtown uses a tiered ticketing system that enables you to get in there early and snap up tickets for well cheap. Aside from the cost versus absolute mental fun ratio. From this years harm reduction push around ketamine use, the guarantee of five pound meals, the cherry picked security squads and the ridiculous thought and craft poured into each and every line up and venue, it’s clear that Boomtown really gives a fuck about giving punters a real bang for their buck and keeping them safe while doing so.
We’ll definitely be back. Probably wearing pig masks with a police helmet furnishing a small siren too.