Balter: the effect of which (to misquote Douglas Adams) ‘is like having your brain smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick.’ I’ve no doubt that if Mr Adams had had the inclination, and if Balter had been around at the time, the entry next to its name in The Guide would have read, ‘best festival in existence.’
Between 2nd and 5th June, around 2,500+ people rolled through the gates leading up to Chepstow Racecourse for the weekend-long party. Now in its fourth year, tickets cost around £85 if you catch the early bird offers, and £105 full price. For your money you can expect a blinder of a weekend splattered against a backdrop of weird and wonderful décor, side-splitting activities and off-the-wall entertainment set in motion by a whirlwind of hip hop, gypsy swing, ska, drum and bass, techno and more beside.
Last year was my first time at the festival and I wasn’t disappointed. After parking up in the (free) car park with high hopes as to what the next 72 hours would entail, wearing big smiles we walked through the gates with bassline pumping from the 24 Hours Garage Girls stage just to the right of the entrance. The site is an unusual shape; 10 stages and a variety of stalls, shops and boutiques line the edges of a grassy walkway, which leads straight to the campsite at the far end. This makes the festival a) incredibly easy to navigate (even after a few of the Buckfast cocktails sold on site) and b) easy to find your friends if anyone decides to go rogue.
Despite the popular belief that Buckfast sponsor the festival (with one of the stages being named after the drink, Buckyham Palace) Balter remains independent and has no corporate sponsors. For this reason, each year festival goers are encouraged to make use of The Trailer Trash Inn and the other bars on site, which were fully stocked with cold cans, cocktails and spirits and mixers for refreshingly reasonable prices from £2.50 (for cans) to £3.50 (spirits and mixers).
After finding the rest of our group and setting up camp, we ventured out into the festival to the open air Caravan Stage, which hosted a wide range acts including The Baghdaddies, King Prawn, K.O.G & the Zongo Brigade and The Stiff Joints over the course of the weekend. First Degree Burns (seven piece Ska/hip-hop/reggae collective) played an uplifting set, which had everyone dancing, despite the rain. We took cover in the Hex tent which, at one stage over the weekend, had a sort of interactive projection mapping box (….that’s the technical term I believe…) by which you could control the hypnotic patterns projected onto the screen above the stage by sticking your hands inside the box and moving them around. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) we didn’t discover this until Sunday evening else we might never have left the tent.
After getting slightly washed out on the Friday, Saturday brought the sun and after grabbing a delicious wrap from the Mexican food stand we were ready to go again. Balter, by its own admission, is just as much about spending time in a field with friends and enjoying some debauched silliness as it is about the music. This ethos makes for a great atmosphere and seems to attract a really special bunch of people, keen for all out foolishness with little room for ‘modesty or censorship’ (to quote their website). There is a strict ‘no children’ policy which helps to uphold this ‘anything goes’ approach. There is a definite feel of community on the site with people looking out for each other even while maxing out their quota of festival fun. Both this year and last, more than a few friends had had to make the usually fairly hopeless walk to Lost Property, all of whom later came bounding back to the campsite, belongings in their arms, beaming because ‘the money’s still there and everything!’
After lazing about in the sun and spending some time at the SIKA Stage (which featured acts including Gypsy Unit, Devilman and Ed Cox, playing in front of a half pipe on the stage) daytime turned to evening and the giant chessboard in front of the Dutty Disco stage doubled up as a dance floor while Abba Gabba took up residency behind the turntables. I truly didn’t know I needed ‘Money Money Money’ played at 250+ bpm while a dalek-vocaled man in a sequined gown and a blonde wig waxed lyrical in my life. What a fool I’d been. “What have I been doing all this time?” I wondered momentarily as ‘Super Trouper’ tumbled into ‘Super Sharp Shooter’ and out again. After losing the plot a little bit somewhere between high octane versions of ‘Gimmie Gimmie Gimmie’ and ‘Mamma Mia’ the music stopped and the dalek-vocaled duo began to sing a rousing a cappella of ‘Happy Birthday’, the genius and subtle nuances of which were almost too much to comprehend, so on we went.
Later, we wondered into the little bigtop-esque Balkanical Circus stage where The Zen Hussies were getting ready to begin their set. ‘Troubling feet since 2001’ this six piece band delivered stomping set with rasping, yet somehow simultaneously effortless vocals the like of which you’d imagine hearing through an old crackly gramophone. Heavily influenced by blues, swing, jazz, ska and rock and roll the Zen Hussies had everyone bouncing around until 2am, a great booking for the headline slot.
Sunday saw Captain Hotknives take to the Caravan Stage, a firm favourite at the festival he was given the honour of judging the ‘Miss Balter’ competition which saw a group of young hopefuls (men in dresses) take to the stage to answer a series of questions to test their integrity and character while presenting their case as to why they should take the crown. Unfortunately for one of our group it was co-incidentally one of the rare points during the weekend that he was caught sans frock but with the aid of some quick (for a Sunday) thinking, a donated sequin dress and some emergency make-up, he was trussed up and putting his best foot forward on stage in no time. Hotknives followed this fiasco with a set of anecdotal crowd pleasers including ‘I Hate Babies’ and a delightful ditty about the merits of Glue.
There are plenty of opportunities to get involved in any number of hilarious activities while stumbling between stages. The ‘Sports Erect’ stall encouraged passers by to get involved in their own grand national, Balter style. Participants mounted their steeds (space hoppers slathered in lube) and were challenged to complete a course of two jumps and a slide to win a ‘fabulous prize.’ There was also a mysterious booth which welcomed in curious passers by to a dark room inside…think Vincent Cassel’s infamous ‘Laser Dance’ scene in Ocean’s Twelve…but with considerably more Thatchers and substantially less elegance.
Once again, Balter really nailed it this year. If a line up of huge names and standing millions of miles away from bands while sipping £7.50 lager, trying desperately to cling to your mates for fear of losing them to a vast sea of bodies until you all eventually drag yourselves to the car that you’ve had to walk 8 miles to get back to is your bag then Balter may not be the one for you. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for quality music, friendly faces and a well-deserved break from the day-to-day in favour of some ridiculousness then look no further.
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