Bluedot's nerdish charms embrace a wider audience

Bluedot 2018 review

published: Wed 25th Jul 2018

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Thursday 19th to Sunday 22nd July 2018
Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre and Arboretum, Macclesfield, Cheshire, SK119DL, England MAP
£169 for the weekend, £59.75 any day
daily capacity: 5000
last updated: Fri 29th Jun 2018

The first night at a festival has traditionally been one shaking off the horrors of traffic jams, the rigours of security checks, and the challenge of tent erection, followed by a can of warm lager while listening to a bloke with an acoustic guitar lowering the bar on what passes for entertainment. Over the years, punters have come to expect more on the opening night, so perhaps Bluedot's offering - effectively a stand-alone concert - is the natural endpoint, notwithstanding the fairly stiff premium, which must have rankled with punters that just wanted a decent camping spot. With an almost entirely seated audience, many laden with well stocked picnics, this felt more like proms in the park than a music festival, but the Halle orchestra were magnificent. Playing in front of a giant screen showing excerpts from the Blue Planet, they immediately engaged a hushed audience, offering up an unusual, but fabulous start to the weekend.

In the surprisingly nippy, and increasingly wet, light of day the next morning, it became apparent how further the Bluedot's site reached than the previous night's foray had suggested. Fittingly for a festival where you were never very far from the Dr Who theme music, it was revealed to be so much bigger on the inside than it first looked. The extraordinarily 1950s radio telescope of Jodrell Bank sits imperiously centre stage, requiring that performance areas are squeezed in and around it. Rather than a central arena encircled by stages, Bluedot is a many tentacled beast, with long and winding passages to individual stages, lined with diversions on route - so that instead of falling across something of interest, Bluedot invites you to go look for it. So while the gloriously raucous Rajasthan Heritage Brass Band started the day with a bang (and a toot) the temptation to go explore proved irresistible. The arboretum, decked out with sundry spacey type sculptures was a place of (relatively) quiet contemplation, in which was tucked nearly naked folk, who must have got up at silly o'clock to take their place in a hot tub, or on the massage table, or the yoga mat. Turn down another path, and an extraordinary rubber inflatable structure beckons. Created by Alan Parkinson, the Luminarium proved to be an otherworldly series of multi-coloured tunnels suffused with light and littered with languishing fellow explorers enjoying its womb-like caverns.

Back in the main arena, the small but distinct pleasures of Tom Rogerson's piano improvisation vied with the Philippa Browning's lecture on Solar Flares in the main lecture tent. I had presumed the lecture side of things was going to be something of an affectation, but during the day there were three separate venues, each with a full programme of talks on anything from the Big Bang to bumblebees. Many of these took place within the permanent buildings on site that had been seconded for the weekend, something that is a little disorientating. When you've settled down to the idea of a weekend in a field, only to find yourself in one of a motley collection of buildings that look more like a 1970s comprehensive school than a space centre, it's a bit odd, to say the least, notwithstanding the welcome escape from the rain. Fortunately, by late afternoon the skies had cleared, just in time for an outstanding performance from Public Service Broadcasting. Their emphasis on daring-do it and the technical advancements of the 20th century felt peculiarly apt under the long shadow of a grade one listed telescope, and perhaps it inspired them - I don't think I've ever seen them play better. They were followed by headliners Flaming Lips, who certainly know how to put on a show. If you've never seen their confetti and the balloons, or the unicorn and the inflatable robot, then it all adds up to something amazing. If you have, however, you do start to wonder whether all that sound and fury masks the quality of the songs. It is surely telling that the set highlight, of Wayne Coyne crowd surfing in his famous bubble, was while singing someone else's music.

Saturday kicked off with one of the most memorable sessions of the weekend, with the old boys from the marvellous Radiophonic Workshop clearly having the time of their lives at a festival that surely could have been made for them. They would go on to spend the weekend in the Space Pavilion, an activity centre that had seen better days, gamely demonstrating their gear to youngsters of all ages, but on stage they were in their element. From Orbital to the KLF we are accustomed to hearing covers of the Dr Who theme tune, but these were the actual blokes who actually played it, for goodness sake - how cool is that? Afterwards, star turns Richard Dawkins and Jim Al-Khalili chatting in the Mission Control tent proved to be a damp squib, with self-regarding Jim barely letting a distracted Richard get a word in. Ironically, the talk before, something I imagined sitting grimly through to gain my place at the altar of Dawkins, proved to be far more interested. Kevin Warwick creepy, self-modifying cyborg experiments made me wonder if I should have invested more time in these lectures.

Sadly, you can't be in two places in once (though I think there may have been a lecture on quantum mechanics that would have taken issue with that) and too many pleasingly eccentric acts to discover elsewhere. Chinese trio Re-trois brought to mind both Shriekback and Holy Fuck, while The Long Now featured Icelandic opera singer Finnur Bjarnason backed by violin and cello. The increasingly assured Nadine Shah raised her game on the main stage, followed by Gary Numan wearing a sack, sweetly sharing the stage with his daughter. Back at the Orbit stage, the superb Lamb was followed by the crowd pleasing Booka Shade, and while both were in fine form, neither were as much fun as Barberos on the nutty Nebula Stage, their twin drummers sporting balaclava masks and leotards while surrounded by a host of dancing monkeys.

On Sunday I learnt all I could possibly want to know (and frankly a little more) about how old Dr Who programmes were being restored, in the sweltering heat of the Star Pavilion, after which the Roots Stage beckoned. Outside the main arena, and beyond the reach of Bluedot's oddly draconian food and drink embargo, families lounged and chatted and picnicked, while Papa Sam Alafia strummed away. Yet another facet of this delightfully varied festival, it was easy to see why some might choose to hang about there all day, lying in a sun that had finally appeared, but to do so would have meant missing out on an extraordinary run of talent due on the Orbit Stage. Bonkers Japanese band Acid Mother Temple, a loose relation of the Gong family, played so loud that children genuinely ran out the venue crying, but for those of us too old and deaf to notice, they were brilliant. Followed by the techo of Vessels and the electronica of George Fitzgerald, it was a tough call whether to join by far the biggest crowd of the night for the Chemical Brothers. Despite being assured by an earnest fan that they had "upgraded the clowns" I opted instead for the big and beautiful sound of Slowdrive, in the sure knowledge that the Orb would provide a fitting close to the festival.

In the interests of balance I should mention disappointments, but frankly it's a short list. The paper programme was poor - little more than a list that surely meant interesting obscurities were missed. I was told it had been slimmed down so that it was portable, but surely in the age of the app, programmes are to be browsed, left in the tent and then kept as a souvenir. The site map was so badly designed I wondered whether it had been created as a challenge. White text on a black background is notoriously difficult for people with reading difficulties to discern - a festival with scientific credentials should have known better. The food ban in the arena, given the distinctly average selection available, just led to folk cramming their faces while waiting to be let in. They had time enough to digest their illicit cheese butties, waiting in an ill-conceived system that had bag free people pointlessly queuing behind those being searched. The security folk involved were unfailingly courteous, friendly and pragmatic, but I wonder if that teetered close to lax at times. I returned from the car park wearing long sleeves and was let in, twice, without showing my wristband. The first time by omission, but the second time was to test the theory, and while it might simply be the case that I had been recognised, whispers of tent robberies on the first night suggest that more care needed to be taken ... oh, and the urinals were a bit grim.

But that's all I can find to complain about. Attendees were universally jolly and companionable. The bars were reasonably stocked, the site was easy to navigate once you got your head around it, and there was always something delightful and surprising just around the corner. A happy combination of mid-range headliners and truly eccentric support, buttressed by a bewildering choice of nerdish activity for the whole family, made for an unusual mix but it resolutely worked, giving the festival the distinct personality it needs to attract repeat business regardless of line up, while still being broad enough to appeal to any festival goer simply looking for a civilised experience in a field. In short, this was one of the nicest, well organised, relaxed festivals I can recall attending in a long time - given its only been going three years, that is little short of remarkable.

review by: David Vass

photos by: David Vass

Thursday 19th to Sunday 22nd July 2018
Jodrell Bank Visitor Centre and Arboretum, Macclesfield, Cheshire, SK119DL, England MAP
£169 for the weekend, £59.75 any day
daily capacity: 5000
last updated: Fri 29th Jun 2018

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