A word of warning first – getting to the Big Chill festival is not a simple task. You see, the festival location – the beautiful Eastnor Castle, near Ledbury in Herefordshire – has the misfortune to be on the railway line operated by surely the UK's most incompetent train company.
First, First Great Western cancelled our train from Paddington. No matter, they said, get another train and change at Didcot. We did; but the train waiting at Didcot was, ludicrously, just three carriages long. Sitting on each others laps and in the aisles we got as far as the next stop, Oxford, where we were told to change to a replacement bus which would take us straight to the festival. Except that the meandering bus only went to one of the festival entrances; the wrong one for us.
And so as night fell we found ourselves trekking a couple of miles down a dark track towards the festival site. This had better be good, I thought. Thankfully, it was.
The festival's name suggests its atmosphere, and when the site hove into view, illuminated by strings of lanterns the length and breadth of Eastnor Castle Deer Park, the heart of even this grumpy old man began to melt. Picking up our wristbands was simplicity itself, we had the tent up in minutes, and so as we headed for the music, the spring was back in our steps.
We'd made it just in time for Massive Attack, headlining on the Friday night following Thom Yorke. Massive Attack have been a favourite band of mine – but this was the second time I'd seen them at a festival, and again they failed to inspire. Perhaps the format just doesn't suit their music – I can imagine they use the reverb acoustic of an enclosed venue to good effect, whereas here the sometimes epic sounds escape straight into the atmosphere.
Massive Attack wound up around midnight, and we went to the Revellers' Stage – in fact a tent, but seemingly the number two stage at the festival, and more dance music oriented than the main stage. I honestly don't know who was playing – someone told us it was Hospital Records, but they were supposed to be on a different stage. Or maybe I was just drunk. Whatever, it was fun.
The trip had been gruelling, though, so we got an early, restful night – and were back on site by midday on the Saturday. The festival was probably most beautiful after dark, but it's still fairly idyllic by day, and a nice place to sit around, play cards and read the paper. And just chill, basically.
Mid-afternoon we parked ourselves in front of the main stage, and listened first to London duo Monarchy, which neither I or my girlfriend could remember having heard before, but which sounded familiar to both of us. Have they really pervaded the pop culture ether, unnoticed – or was it just indie-by-numbers?
After them came Jamaican 'mento' pioneers The Jolly Boys, rocking their Caribbean beats since the 1960s and here at the Big Chill covering songs ancient and modern. Thus we were treated – if that's your kind of thing – to mento versions of Lou Reed's Perfect Day, the Rolling Stones' You Can't Always Get What You Want, and Rehab, by Amy Winehouse. The lead singer assured us he had no plans for rehab, either.
On the way back to the campsite for a re-fuel before the evening's entertainment, we were side-tracked into the Revellers' tent again for what turned out to be the Craig Charles Fantasy Funk Band – an all-star get-together orchestrated by Dave off of Red Dwarf, now in his current incarnation as the saviour of funk and soul on BBC 6 Music. The crowd was having as much fun as the band obviously was. Later in the evening, a small crowd also gathered round the Big Chill Radio trailer as Charles presented his BBC show live from the festival.
For the second time in two weeks I was foiled in my attempt to see a whole Caribou set; but this time I caught a couple more tracks than I had the previous week at Field Day. At the London festival the band had had an enormous stage to get lost in – bigger than the main stage at Big Chill – but here they were on the much smaller Clash stage. I felt they had suited the big, dark expanse of the Field Day stage, but Big Chill's Clash stage had its own charms, the bumpy hill for the crowd providing its own natural amphitheatre. Caribou also had their fans in Herefordshire, and played their set to a grateful reception.
Over on the main stage, warming up for the headliner everyone was really there to see, the pantomime show of hip hop veteran Roots Manuva was getting underway. Looking like the hip hop Chris Eubank in waistcoat and wellies, Roots delegated the majority of the show to his right-hand rapper and soulful singer, but had his own moments of talking to the crowd, and even rapping when he absolutely had to.
When the tell-tale bassline of Roots Manuva's biggest hit, Witness, came down, the crowd started going wild. But that wasn't panto enough – they had to bring it to a halt and inform us that sound regulations meant they couldn't play that song no more. The crowd played its part to perfection, though, and persuaded Roots the way Roots wanted to be persuaded that yes, we did want to hear Witness. And so we got it.
M.I.A., handily featured that day in the official newspaper of the festival, The Guardian, also laboured under popular expectation of one particular big hit. But, as expected, she put on a great and engaging show - notable as much for her use of video as for the music itself, not to mention the dancers she had on stage.
She had saved her biggest gesture, though, for Paper Planes. She said she wanted some people to join her on the stage. Over the course of 10 minutes, she'd amassed about 300. It was great to watch, and she got herself up on an amp and sang it to the crowd in the field, and the crush down the front clamouring to get on the over-crowded stage.
In the end, there was little security could do but usher her from the stage and then try and disperse the crowd that was up there. When they announced that M.I.A.'s show could not go on until the stage was cleared, the stage did clear; but M.I.A. did not re-emerge. I suspect that had been her plan all along.
We wandered off to an open air cinema which had been promising 4 Lions, but – about an hour after it was scheduled to start – announced it could not show it for contractual reasons. Failing that, we headed for the various dance tents – but, sorry to report, were disappointed by the lack of variety in what was on offer. Great if you like techno – but for us, another early night.
Wandering onto the site around midday on the Sunday, we passed people walking in the opposite direction who were painted yellow, head-to-toe. Further along, purple people. Then blue. It turned out they'd been getting naked and getting photographed for artist Spencer Tunick's latest naked people composition, on one of the Eastnor fields.
Sunday had a slightly different feel to it, as day-trippers were allowed into the festival. Morcheeba were a relatively big name to kick things off on the main stage, surely a band made for a festival such as this, and well-received by that part of the crowd that was not still sleeping off a large Saturday night.
They were followed by country singer Phil Vassar, before the last gig we could see before heading for the train – Broken Bells, the collaboration between James Mercer of the Shins and Brian Burton, better known as producer Danger Mouse.
Their self-titled album has been on repeat in my house for a few weeks now, and it was initially surreal – in a good way – to hear in this field what I'd only ever heard in the kitchen at home before.
The band didn't seem to have any more material than what's on the album, and as each of the leading lights of what was on the day a seven-strong band each has his own project outside of this band, perhaps that is all they will ever do.
That would be a shame, though. Though all they did was essentially play the contents of their album, their performance was proof that energy doesn't just manifest itself in speed, and a slow tempo doesn't have to be plodding; the relentless momentum of Trap Doors, for instance, not stopping where it sounds like the song should break but carrying on to the understated crescendo of the chorus.
Mercer didn't shy away from the falsettos required on The Ghost Inside, and elsewhere; and October is just a great song. Last up, they played The High Road – allowing Mercer and Burton to, perhaps cheesily, leave to the lyrics “Tell all of your friends goodbye”, while the rest of the band played the tune over again. Broken Bells were a great end to this warm and fuzzy feeling festival – and even the train got us back to London fuss-free. Consider me Big Chilled.
Published on 10 August 2010 by TomBowker