I am stood in the Down Town district of BoomTown. Despite the very best efforts of the new Mayoress, Burrita Jose, to clean up this district, a shady undercurrent still looms large. It's perhaps 4PM on a Friday afternoon but I wear no Rolex and my phone battery has already died. I have no way of telling the time but it's not yet dark. I am approached by a creature. Half female, half tortoise-shell orc, she passes me a bag of crushed up blue powder telling me that it's powerful stuff. She wants me to buy it but I don't recognise the currency. Anxiously, she looks over her shoulder and notices police in the distance. She scarpers in fear leaving me with the mystery blue powder.
The police approach. But these aren't ordinary police. They have snouts for noses and inhabit the same world as the fleeing creature. They hold a piece of paper in their hands that is a warrant for the arrest of the blue powder dealer. I mumble a muted response when asked if I have seen her. I surreptitiously slip the powder into my back pocket when warned by the pig-like police that anybody found in possession of the powder faces a jail sentence and a hefty fine. Even though I realise that this isn't reality and I've stumbled upon some characters acting out a scene, I still feel terrified at the thought of being caught. The police wander off on their trotters. I breathe a sigh of relief.
This is BoomTown - a real life 'Choose Your Own Adventure' book. Performers mingling with punters, acting out their own stories, inviting you into their worlds of fantasy across the multiple districts that make up this city. By Sunday evening, it's increasingly hard to tell who is performing and who is punting. Over there, there's somebody dressed like a farmer drinking strong ciders and telling all about their milking skills; there's somebody, replete with glitter-beard, who's running away to the circus such is their skill with poi and devil-sticks; and finally we spot a group of teenagers, sat by the Town Hall, acting at arguing with their friends over their predicted A level results. The boundaries have merged and I can no longer tell if these stories are real world or not - such is the impact of BoomTown.
I'll be honest. I'd shied away from BoomTown to date. I'd heard much about it but thought that it mightn't be for me. As a man in his 40's, I wondered if the relentless, full-on partying and the wild, 'Lord Of The Flies', feral trustafarian youngsters it attracts, might jar with me. I needn't have worried though. This is a friendly, happy and non-judgmental place. Us older festival goers might have overlooked the initial, growth years of BoomTown but we're on the case now. I'm told that the average age of BoomTown is on the rise as we all clock on to the delights it delivers. Glastonbury might still be the Grandaddy but where that is arguably looking a little tired around the edges, BoomTown is the naughty, creative Grandchild.
Perhaps, some are put off by BoomTown as a result of the reputation it has as a haven for Ketamine dreams and Nitrous Oxide nights. Drug taking is a factor at pretty much every festival I've attended this year but the reality is that BoomTown is the only one I've attended that has taken a truly responsible stance in educating about the dangers. Anybody reading the excellent £5 programme will be left in little doubt that the organisers want us to have a time of 'perpetual intrigue' and 'boundless imagination' whilst being 'socially conscious keeping each other safe'. The back page of the programme is given over to 'Drugs Awareness' and there's a moving tribute from the family of Ellie Rowe, the 18 year old who passed away at BoomTown 2013, after an adverse Ketamine reaction. It's thoughtful, extremely sad stuff. On site, the Bristol Drugs Project are working their socks off to guide, support and advise.
Thursday evening is a breathless awe-filled whistle-stop rush. I've read all about the pop-up buildings and the various districts that make up this festival but nothing can prepare you for the scope, the attention to detail and the temporary beauty that abounds. We start our route in the uptown part of the city. It's already bustling and thriving. My jaw drops as we walk into the Town Square and I get my first glimpse of one of the many theme based stages. Onwards into the old town and the jaw drops further as I take in the exquisite,100 foot long, pirate ship stage. We stop to admire the detail as salty seadogs, metres up in the air, adjust the rigging and walk the planks. A few pints of real ale, an excellent Moles Best (£4.50 a pint) and it's a wander through Whistlers Green where old school crafts are maintained. This is BoomTown's very own Green field. The 'new' Old Mine stage is yet to open but it dominates and bookends this uptown side of the site, a stage with its very own waterwheel.
We start the descent through woodland into the downtown areas. For a while, as darkness delays, we dance with face-painted ghouls in the Raveyard. This is a hideously hilly site that'll work your leg muscles but any pull or pain is pampered by the views that are simply breathtaking. At the top of the steps that lead into downtown Boomtown, I gasp and marvel at the array of lights, action and excitement that sit in the bowl below. The spidery beast of Arcadia sits slap bang in the middle. It's surrounded by fairground squeal, palpable anticipation and campsite clamour. BoomTown doesn't force you to pitch your tent in a distant field. Here, if that's your desire, you can pitch within peeing distance of the activities on offer.
I am breathless as I enter the downtown area for the first time. This is partly because I've just walked down the steps that led from the higher part of this site but mostly because I can now see the detail on offer. Like many city centres that are still feeling the pinch of the long lasting recession, there are buildings here boarded up and for sale. But push away at the barricades and you might find an illegal, old school rave, happening behind one of the doorways. Walk on further and you'll find yourself looking at the enormous, brilliant Boombox, another epic BoomTown stage where DJs encourage you to dance until dawn. Shop window displays exhibit weird and wonderful minutiae. The attention to detail is such that I want to explore behind every door, find every nook and cranny, discover all of the micro-venues (a fruitless ambition - the programme lists 70 and I reckon there are more than that) and leave no stone unturned.
We bypass the ChinaTown district on this Thursday night preamble and after a quick snack head into the hidden woods, part of the TrenchTown district. These are woods masquerading as a tropical island. The narrative suggests that the beach bars and hideaways here are the aftermath of this being a secret holiday destination for Mayor Burrita. Tonight, the maze of pathways adorned with rum shacks and cocktailed-up clientele leads to a little bit of push and shove so we leave the dub and reggae behind at the woods and find ourselves at the base of the Magic Carpet ride. If my senses had not already been battered by the offerings (and if I hadn't heard loads about it since last year) it would have completely stunned me to see this escalator carved into the hillside. To save our weary legs, we can choose (for a fee) to jump onto the moving platform and get a helping hand back up the extreme excesses of this hilly site. Frankly, it's a must do festival experience. Our tour is nearly complete as we wander up through the Mayfair district, Georgian pop-up decadence. They'll be swinging from the chandeliers here later in the weekend. We take a slight diversion and I get my first glimpse of the Lions Den, another epic construction of a stage. It's a shrine to reggae and a glittering Aztec temple. It smacks your gob.
All of this design creativity is well and good but it's best not to forget that many of us go to festivals to catch some musical delights. BoomTown oozes bands of quality. Unlike other festivals where you begin the day with bands that are under your radar and build to the headliners, BoomTown launches you headfirst into names. Midday on Friday and already we have our first clashes. The programme lists 20 main venues and each of these is planning to start with a bang. Like many others on site we plump for the legendary Wailers at the Lions Den. It's packed out for the jammin' Jamaicans and they put on a show that doesn't disappoint. I'm ashamed to say that it's my only visit to the Lions Den this weekend. With acts playing such as Shaggy (he throws a strop apparently), Sister Nancy, and Jimmy Cliff, it goes to show what quality there is elsewhere on site that I find no time to return. I really enjoy the world/folk vibe that’s the order of the day at the Old Mines stage. La Chiva Gantiva impress as they throw their all into their Manu Chao like Afrobeat. It’s such a shame that there’s not more in the crowd to watch such a stunning set. Skinny Lister are one of my favourite festival bands who never disappoint. They provide a perfect antidote to the hangover when they play their energetic, inclusive folk early on the Sunday afternoon. By The Rivers are still young but these Leicester based musicians are old hands at getting the crowd dancing to their reggae tinged harmonies. They draw a large crowd to the hidden wood stage on the Saturday evening and provide a musical highlight. Straight after By The Rivers have played we meander into ChinaTown and the Devil Kicks Dancehall where veteran performers, Alabama 3, are waking us all up this evening with their country Techno. Sunday evening up in the Town Square, we sit outside the Town Hall and mourn that this is the final day of the festival as we enjoy Babyhead and an unbelievable festival exclusive from the amazing The Cat Empire.
For all of these ‘names’ that we see performing, there are many other quality acts I see who I don’t immediately recognise. This is the beauty of BoomTown. In many ways, the acts on stage are there to simply increase the sense of drama that exists offstage. They’re picked to play because they add to the narrative.
I am choosing a pint of fine cider in the Cock Inn. There's quite a range but the menu doesn't distinguish between 7.5% rocket fuel and a more leisurely 5% afternoon/evening pick me up. It's about 7pm ( I don't wear a Sekonda) on Friday afternoon/evening and we're experiencing a downpour of rain. The storm shows little sign of stopping yet I seem to have found myself in the right place at the right time. I sit under canvas and chat with others who are using the wet weather as an excuse to wet their lips. My kagoule is in my backpack and so I share it with others who need to head back to their tents to change out of their summer clothes into night gear. It's a fun couple of hours sheltering in here that soon becomes a blur as the cider starts to take effect. I lose my raincoat but it doesn't matter one jot. The rain stops and I head off with new friends into a Boomtown night. We hop between venues; we see what lurks behind doors and we eventually land at the Town hall. Here my memory of proceedings really fades but I do vaguely remember shaking the hand of mayor Burrita, chatting nonsense, dancing like an embarrassing Dad but not caring and feeling so happy that the worries of the real world had faded away.
The threat of Hurricane Bertha looms large as the weekend develops. Some choose to leave early to avoid the gusty wind that's predicted but those that stay are rewarded with sunshine and showers. Site technicians work wonders to ensure that the pop-up buildings and elaborate stages stand up to health and safety conditions. Timetable changes are the (dis)order of the day on Sunday as both the Jolly Dodger and the Town Hall stage contend with storm damage but the show ultimately goes on and both venues raise two fingers to the weather Gods. Nobody seems to mind that we have change and delay for there's still a feast of music and activity to throw yourself into.
Part of me wishes I'd spent some time attempting to become an 'official citizen' of BoomTown. On entry to the fair, each punter was given a ‘no borders’ passport. Inside the passport, there were a number of tasks around town and citizenship tests (with names like Jurassic Experience and Pandora’s Box) that you could complete (if the mood took you that way). On completion of each task, you’d get a stamp in your passport. Complete all the tasks and you’d get a mega badboy of a stamp. It’s a cracking way to encourage those who might stagnate at one part of the festival to explore more.
I might not have got the passport stamps but I did explore this world with vigour. I knocked on doors, chatted with strangers and threw myself into the vignettes created by performers and punters. In the Wild West district, a new area this year, I ordered drinks in Spanish and threw myself into the hoedown with general aplomb. I watched from a distance as punters indulged in baby-oil lotion wrestling. The ring got soaked. At other festivals I would have spent more time stomping to the psy-trance in the beautiful butterfly decorated wood that was laid on by Tribe of Frog. I paid a fiver to get my beard glittered with gold. I wandered past the old mine stage and up to a viewing point high above the site and chilled in a hammock as I looked down to those partying hard below. It’s such a shame that you can’t stop time flying at BoomTown. I wanted to be in more than one place at once.
I'll try to put this as simply as I can; BoomTown is an astounding and outstanding festival experience. For years now, festivals have lived by the mantra that you'll get more out of them if you stop being a casual observer and become immersed and involved. BoomTown takes this to the next level and it becomes almost impossible not to get involved. Real life merges with fiction; stories mix with fact. I adored exploring this world of life re-affirming possibility and escaping into impossibility. As the programme notes, ‘human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers gave birth to them, but life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves. We are the blueprints of our better tomorrows.’
The fantastic festival season of 2014 just keeps on rolling. And for those who are interested in the content of the bag of blue powder - it was simply sherbet.
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