I am standing in front of Muuti in his office, a hidden control centre in the heart of DSTRKT 5. Muuti, a cyborg (with human qualities), is sneering at my inability to offer him anything. "Sit down", he barks as his two glamorous assistants give him the nod that I am clean. I'm ushered to a chair and I sit. More questions follow; I have information and codes to offer. We all want 'a world without masters' and I vaguely recall something about turning 180 degrees at the appropriate point in this adventure. I'm fully immersed in an alternative reality, dedicated to supporting the hacking and subterfuge that's going on in an attempt to bring down the powerful Bang-Hai industries.
Oh Boomtown, you've done it again. You have well and truly messed with my head.
This is like no other festival I know. It exists on so many levels. Yes, you can wander around like you might at any other festival, having planned who you want to see and where you want to go. You'd have fun doing so. Or, you can align yourself with Boomtown's story within the festival. You can become an active and curious participant, a believer in the narrative that permeates across the site. You can talk to the actors and play your own part in solving the mysteries. Whatever did happen to Nickolas Boom up there in the Wild West a couple of hundred years ago? And how were Bang-Hai industries involved in those sinister deals? You choose your own adventure, control your mind and plot your own course over this wildest of weekends.
It's a simple message on Boomtown's website that draws me in. By the old town port, I need to ask 'Do I know you friend?'. I spy a closed door down a dark alley to the left of the stage and knock on it. A hatch in the door opens with caution and a head peers out. Some shout obscenities or 'let us in' but I gently whisper the phrase I've been primed to remember. The door opens and I'm led, with two others, into a dark room. In front of me is a computer terminal. I'm frisked and told to stand in a particular place. The chair in front of the terminal swivels, a woman with a sense of authority stands up and I'm under some sort of interrogation. Yes, I want to join up with this hacker cell to infiltrate into the heart of Bang Hai Industries. Yes, I want to take them down brick by brick. Yes, their redevelopments of these areas for reasons of pure greed are abhorrent. "Take this card to the Wild West area", instructs the woman. "Say that we sent you but tell nobody else".
I don't head straight to the Wild West area. This is a festival after all and I'm not yet ready to completely give up my time for protest. There's fun to be had and I need to go off on my own wander.
There is no better festival stage in the UK than the Lions Den. Photographer Phil confirms this when I ask him and he's been to lots of festivals. The structure itself is incredible and it's easy to see why this stage alone takes weeks to construct. Like a set from an Indiana Jones chronicle, this 'temple of bass with cascading waterfalls and flaming towers' sits proudly at the base of a natural amphitheatre. Tradition dictates that, here in Trenchtown, the opening act on the Friday will always be a legend of reggae. They don't get much bigger than Toots and The Maytals. Toots has been popping up at a few UK festivals this summer but I bet he's never seen anything quite like this. A field rammed full of punters sing back at him as he encourages audience participation. A set of classics in the midday sun follows. Crumbs, it's hot here. The sunshine wasn't entirely expected.
Much passes before my next visit to the Lion's Den on Saturday evening. A pre-headline set of exquisitely chilled, sometime more upbeat soul-reggae from the wonderful Ziggy Marley comes before an act that most of Boomtown appears to want to see. The Specials do exactly as you would expect by playing a tight set of their 2-tone classics. We've long since given up hope that Terry Hall might appear to be enjoying himself as they almost accidentally and apologetically stumble through their collection of unlikely singalongs. The sound right at the back of the bowl is a bit patchy though I'm reliably informed there's no such issue right at the heart of the crowd. As they launch into 'Too Much Too Young', I conclude this is a perfectly functional set rather than anything spectacular. Once fireworks are launched into the night sky, I'm forced to review that opinion.
Boomtown takes its responsibility around drug education seriously. We all know that for many drug use and festivals go hand in hand but, with tragic cases of how it can all go desperately wrong littering their recent history, the organisers have taken a particularly proactive stand. Beans On Toast, this year's talking head for safe usage, gives a short speech to all prior to the Toots And The Maytals show. Jay's an engaging and informed raconteur and the things he says seem to resonate with many. One innovation which he mentions is the 'Drug Testing' unit on the other side of the site. "They found concrete in some cocaine there earlier", warns Jay.
I'd heard about such measures at other European festivals but thought we were miles off getting legal buy-in for drug testing to happen here. The Daily Fail and other bastions of moral correctness would surely have a field day with such a 'nonsense' idea. You can see the editorials now. "Why should we be helping these young layabouts who contribute next to nothing to society to openly break the law of the land?" Of course, those of us with a slightly more balanced world view realise that it's better to offer something proactive that might help to save lives. It's a busy tent when I stand outside of it on Saturday afternoon. People of all ages are taking their drugs in to be examined. They receive a report about the ingredients and chemicals making up their drugs and then can make an informed decision about whether or not they want to put them into their bodies. It's a fantastic service and one that should exist at any festival where taking drugs is a thing. I chat to a few policeman on site and they all concur. Happy, smiley and throwing themselves into the party, the Hampshire constabulary get plaudits from many for their open-minded approach to Boomtown. The same cannot be said about the brutish, grumpy and aggressive security.
Back to my quest - I'm up in the Wild West area. It's a vibrant town, full of cowboy's and other assorted personnel enhancing the atmosphere with gunfights and moonshine. A preacher stands at the door of the chapel observing the shenanigans whilst a sheriff roams and attempts to keep law and order. Just along from the chapel, there's a courtroom. I pop my head through the door and proceedings have just begun. A punter is complaining that a friend of his has stolen his possessions and in a mock-up of a real court, the prosecution and the defence slog it out with verbose battles. It's a fun diversion; the judge declares that there is guilt and the poor punter is marched to the town stocks where he's abused with words and water.
I spy a prisoner looking anxious behind bars at the side of the courthouse and have a chat. I show him the card I was given at the Old Town and his eyes light up. He gives me a newspaper, a dog-eared copy of the Daily Rag. The front page tells, in slightly archaic language, about Nickolas Boom, the original founder of this new settlement. Boom is fiercely defending the rights of settlers and prospectors from some sharks, who have eyes on the land. I'm told to take the paper to the bank to find out more.
I'm a detective in this town, dodging the bullets, the drunks and the dodgy looking barbers as I piece together more. Nickolas Boom has now gone missing, kidnapped it seems and taken to Mayfair. I'm finding this out from actors who each play their roles to perfection. They all have slightly different snippets of information. If your trail goes cold just spark up another conversation. Afternoon becomes evening whilst I'm up here in the Wild West. It's an action-packed time. I participate in a bank robbery with Blaise, a tall gent distinctive in a long black leather coat. I wile away a portion of time playing cards in Shotgun Willie's saloon. It's a game that never ends, a dead-end and a diversion.
Of course, whilst all of this alternative reality is at play, there's the timetabled things as well. I shuffle along to quality jazz bands in Crazy Calamities and nip along to the nearby Old Mines stage where the larger folky, bluesy and world acts try to impress. It's here that I catch much of 47 Soul's set. From the Middle East, their thing is an exuberant, energetic and electronic protest. I dance and whoop as a Palestinian flag is wildly waved by a crowd member standing just in front of me. The final act to take to this stage on the Sunday are Alabama 3, delightfully on-form and showing no signs of taking it easy after twenty years on the circuit.
Before I head to Mayfair to try to find out what's happened to Nickolas Boom, I take a slight diversion back to my tent. I need a jacket for the nights have been a bit chilly in these parts. We're pitched in Psyforest camping just behind the impressive faux-nuclear energy structure of Sector 6. A wander through the woods gets me home but I can't help but stop and stomp a while in this beautifully lit and decorated section of the site. Lights dazzle and strobes disorientate as I smile at strangers who are fixed here for the long run. I stand at the top of the hill which leads down into Sector 6 and spend a while taking the enormity of this small part of the site in. The Drum 'N' Bass being pumped (too gently for some) from this arena might not be entirely my thing but you can't help but be in awe of the attention to detail that's been laid on for us everywhere we go.
Many, by this stage of the weekend, have forgotten the hassles of getting in. But, it'd be remiss of me to not mention it at some point in this review. Faced with extra-ordinary and 'unseasonal' downpours of rain in the build-up to opening the gates on the Thursday, Boomtown's social media effort had warned all that there might be some delays. Add in to this the complexity of extra and more thorough bag searches and you could see from afar what was at risk of developing. Chatting to crew teams when on site, it's hard to imagine how frantic the scenes must have been. The weather had played havoc with the site build and the very best plans were in danger of going very badly wrong. The health and safety executive sign-off for the site came late in the day which meant larger crowds were forming outside the gates. In their desire to get the site right inside the fences, things were untested outside. Security staff seemed unbriefed and there are reports that they took the law into their own hands. Queueing systems seemed non-existent and facilities were in short supply. Reports that people were fainting as they waited for hours to get in seemed widespread. For a while, everything was chaotic and in danger of completely toppling over.
But I feel the need to be charitable here. I heard reports that it was touch and go whether the festival might go ahead, such was the impact of the dismal weather in the weeks leading up to Boomtown. The fact that once inside the site everything appeared to be in tip-top shape, that Boomtown's reputation for its incredible attention to detail remained, is something which deserves much praise. And you get a sense that lessons will be learnt. It's always going to be a logistical nightmare getting onto a site the size of Boomtown but I'd bet that the organisers are already making plans to ensure that next year's instalment runs more smoothly. That stone won't be left unturned again.
The Mayfair area of Boomtown is where the socialites go; here you need the whiff of money and an ability to endure decadence, even if your potential might have faded years ago. There are hotels and banks, an art gallery with trinkets (the Tat Modern) and a seedy underbelly which suggests that crime is never far from the surface. Many gangsters drink champagne from the Sky Bar, an elevated platform with majestic views over this Mayfair area and the downtown part of the Boomtown site. Reports are coming to us that Bang-Hai industries are facing trouble on the stock-market after hackers have infiltrated their systems. It'd explain the extra pressure from crowds of investors rushing to withdraw their Boomtown dosh from the bank. Like a fictional sleuth, I head down a side street and sniff out the offices of 'The Daily Rag'. I ask a girl behind the counter if she knows anything about the whereabouts of Nickolas Boom. She gives me a long, hard stare and writes a message on a scrap of paper. "Go and find Andy Roid in DSTRKT 5 and give him this piece of paper", she tells me.
We'll go there soon enough but I'm not ready to leave Mayfair yet. In previous years, it's not been an area I've spent lots of time in and I vow to put that right this year. Friends have told me that the late night parties in this part of town are things of legend. It's with this in mind that we walk into the Park Hotel on Saturday night, a swanky kind of establishment where your credentials are checked and your fatcat status approved. "They're letting anyone in now", mutters a stranger when I appear in my muddy trousers. We see a great and lively set in here from Laid Blak and then indulge in all sorts of odd table tennis tournaments in one corner of the hotel. A dazzling carnival collective ends our night. Beautiful women dressed in colourful feathery costumes entice whilst a DJ plays. Over the road from the Park Hotel in the ballroom, I catch a DJ set from a pair of my favourites, The Allergies, on Sunday evening. They're followed by the slick and smooth soul of Smoove & Turrell. It's a fine to see this festival through to conclusion.
But my quest is not yet done of course. From Mayfair, I have been sent downtown to find Andy Roid in DSTRKT 5. Initially, I'm reluctant to head down again. This site on which Boomtown sits has hills like no other I know. It's fair enough going downtown but the climb to get back up never fails to leave your leg muscles burning. But I conclude that this is important. What if it's the code I have for Andy that'll unlock the mysteries and allow this hacker cell that I'm now a member of to bring down Bang-Hai? Tired legs are a small price to pay.
I find Andy Roid with remarkable ease. He sits behind a counter, a shopkeeper presiding over second hand computer bits. "Ah", he notes when I bring him the code. "I need a bit more." He gives me a memory stick to take elsewhere. I'm now Andy's gopher, collecting extra bits of data from actors all as immersed as I in this wonderful piece of theatre. A trip to Dr Benway's Lab sees me taken into a room where attempts are made to genetically alter my mind. Benway is Muuti's lead neuro-scientist from what I can tell. Like learning a new language for the first time, my head feels like it's about to explode. It's Dr. Benway who sends me to Muuti. That's how I found myself standing in front of him with a head full of Boomtown mush.
There's so much more I could write about that happened during this sensory overload that is Boomtown. I only venture up into the expanded Whistlers Green area once but wish I'd spent longer. This is the space where traditional crafts are upheld, where stimulating discussions are held at Speakers corner and from where natural, healthy energy is cast down upon the rest of the site. The fine afternoon I spend at the Town Hall stage whilst watching Smerins, The Wurzels and Arrested Development might take a more prominent place in a review of a smaller festival yet here at Boomtown it only registers a footnote. The food and beer offering gets ticks on my scorecard; toilet provision the same.
Boomtown is a visual orgasm of a festival, a place like no other. Remarkable in its attention to detail, it remains unique, incredible and special. I made a real effort to get involved this year, to watch bands and DJs with friends but also to wander off and explore what could be behind hidden doors. In an odd way, Boomtown encourages you to be more curious about life, to take time to investigate the small and minute rather than just marching on by in search of your next big fix. I was only able to scratch the surface. This playground is so vast. Others will have taken different paths to Muuti and will have gone home to their mates telling alternative tales. I've said it before and I'll repeat it again; there is no better festival on the circuit than Boomtown.
latest on this festival
festival home page
the first of its individual districts, area and stage line-ups
line-ups & rumours
joining Gorillaz for Boomtown's Chapter 10