A wiser man than I once said that if you're bored of Boomtown, then you're bored of life itself - or words to that effect. I'm glad to report that there's still life in this old salty dog, for after an action-packed and vibrant weekend of adventure, colour and vivid craziness, you just have to come to the conclusion that this is one of the most life-affirming, epic weekends you might ever have the chance to attend.
And the cards were stacked against Boomtown this year. Weather reports in the few days leading up to the festival saw a couple of other prominent events cancelling and whilst the Cornish cliffs of Boardmasters are arguably different from this Winchester Bowl, there must have still been anxiety amongst the organisers when those extreme wind forecasts hit. There are tall stage structures here and plenty of potential health and safety hazards. The organisers could be forgiven for struggling with sound mixes in these conditions but, on the contrary, they seem to revel in them. Sound levels are the best they've ever been. We knew the storm was coming and we extended our guy ropes for the impending doom. It wasn't pretty and some people lost their tents amidst the bluster but the show went on. We were all in this together and a sort of camaraderie emerged as we supported those around who were struggling. Apart from the temporary closing of one of the larger dance stages, the structures stood up to the tornadoes. We survived Boomtown 2019.. But heck, we did so much more than that.
A fair bit has been written about festival season 2019 being one where a strident environmental consciousness, an urgent green revolution is taking hold. Boomtown is at the forefront of this thinking and you don't have to look hard to witness the presence of the Extinction Rebellion crowd. This 11th chapter of the Boomtown story is all about protecting the planet and being a radical citizen in a radical city. The 'Leave No Trace' messages loom large. And despite some mess inevitably being left when Monday morning comes around, you truly sense that the selfish knuckleheads are now in the minority - if only this was the real world and we didn't live in these depressing Boris times. Viva la revolution.
Photographer Phil and I make it to the traditional Boomtown opening ceremony at the Lions Den just before midday on Friday. Carnival troupes and exciting dance groups give way to an opening set from Gentleman's Dub Club but what really sticks about this whole sequence is the appearance on-stage of Clare Dubois, founder and CEO of Tree Sisters, the global network of women who donate to fund the restoration of tropical forests. Clare speaks compellingly and convincingly about the difference that the work of Tree Sisters can make. There's a call-out for all to leave their small change (though it's not entirely clear where). And from that a Boomtown forest can grow.
Previous reviews of this wonderful weekend have seen me knee deep in the immersive maze, the narrative that runs hand in hand with the festival. We're all urged to talk to the actors in the various districts around the site, to be curious, to knock on doors to see what delights lie behind and and to get ourselves involved in the sub-plots, novellas and encyclopaedias that make this the 'largest interactive show in the world'. It's dungeons and dragons on an epic scale, a complex 'escape room' that all can play in unison, a fantasy world that we're all desperate to help create. It's so embedded that you sense that some punters are now more involved in creating the ongoing storyline than those officially employed to plot the stories. I confess that I didn't get that deep in the storyline this year.
Perhaps part of my reluctance to get immersed was that it all seems so complicated now. Weeks before the festival, I'm encouraged to join groups, hack websites of 'imaginary' companies that are going to be onsite, e-mail and 'insta' some of the characters that I can meet in advance. It's a real life cryptic crossword that can now consume the imagination of a punter all year round, a blurring of virtual reality boundaries and a stupendous computer game that surely can't be good for your mental health. Hats off to all involved though. The advanced planning and online activity I've seen since the festival ended has been jaw-dropping. Those there that spent at least eight hours a day hunting down clues and being sent on wild goose chases say it was the best yet. A little bit of me regrets not interacting and asking AMI a tad more.
But the conscious decision I made to avoid the complex paths yielded fruit in other ways; at Boomtown 2019, I could flit around watching some stunning musical sets rather than stumble upon stuff whilst queueing at secret doorways. There's so much that captured attention.
Uptown was largely my home. The Old Mines stage has had an upgrade and is now an impressive looking forge. This makeover seems to have given the area a boost of energy and, whilst it's never going to be the busiest area of the site, the folky, world-music ethic of the place provides those gathered with some great moments.
Michael Franti and Spearhead are a booking to behold. Like many here, I've not seen this wonderful, happy man in a live setting for years. His enduring love for the world and the punters at this Saturday night headline set shines brightly. He's rarely on stage with his band for he wants this magical set to be inclusive. He sings with us and on our level, he shakes our hands and poses for photo opportunities whilst delivering a delightful array of gentle reggae, soca and calypso rhythm. It's a set that cleanses, refreshes and gives all sorts of positive hope about how this shit-fest of a world could be with different global leaders. Dreamy.
Mik Artistik's Ego Trip are, in many ways, the polar opposite of Michael Franti yet they also impress when opening The Forge on Sunday lunchtime. This Northern man has eaten grumpiness for breakfast and with a delightful mix of humour and aggression, he steers his trio through an outlandish set of John Cooper Clarkesque song. He’s angry about his age, heroin, impending death, the stewards who are watching his set and plastic foxes. And it’s brilliant.
Later that afternoon with altogether different pacing and style, we get carried away with the mellow sounds of San Salvador. The French act make use of the loveliest of vocal harmony and complex rhythm structure to offer something ethereal and other-worldy. BCUC, the South African band lift us all up straight after with their smiley, joyous effervescence. There's no need to go elsewhere. The quality on The Forge stage is good enough to satisfy the most awkward of palettes.
Those of us from little old Leicester are proud of the city's outputs. For a few years now we've been banging on about how it's in pretty rude musical health and it would appear that national festivals are now picking up on the fact that there's something in the water of the place. Grace Petrie's nationwide presence is such that she no longer needs to mention her roots. Her protest-singer folk charms all and sundry at The Forge after Mik Artistik over Sunday lunch. We'll also claim Skinny Lister as our own even though it's only a couple of members who learnt their musical craft in Leicestershire's folk clubs. They gamely battle the extreme elements over Friday tea; the wind is almost at its worst and they compare it to being in a 1980's wind-tunnel music video. The Brandy Thieves (from Leicester) have had the quality to be playing this sort of festival gig for a few years now and it's an absolute delight to see Andrea, Cain, Joe et al knocking their crowd for six in the Floating Lotus tent up in Whistlers Green. It's a powerhouse performance and one that has surely turned the heads of the bookers on the bigger stages. And finally for this Leicester interlude, there's the sheer 70's influenced rock power and might of Goldwater on Sunday evening in Foggers Mill, a smaller stage set amidst Copper County. Grant, Goldwater's lead singer, dressed in long white robes is an intense preacher and we are his congregation. With a high-kick, the crazed charmer is off and taking no prisoners as he jumps into the crowd st least three times during the set. It's intensely interactive, riotously decadent yet all held together superbly by the tight band. When they launch into their own version of 'Woke Up This Morning' in heartfelt tribute to the Revd D Wayne, you realise that you're watching a band every bit as exciting as the Alabama 3 - and that is high praise indeed.
Goldwater urge us all to Leave No Trace and that's a common thread across bands at this festival. They might have all been briefed to say it but the unity of message works. And surely it's only by giving the message such prominence that it'll ultimately sink in? Nowhere does the message come across clearer than from Beans on Toast who's been specially commissioned by Boomtown to write a song about taking your shit home. Jay is as on form as ever, promoted to the Town Square and drawing a large Sunday afternoon crowd. I've seen him loads now but will never tire of his tales of love, life and festival pickles. The Town Square has been opened up this year with fewer buildings around it to give it more capacity and the feeling of greater space.
Neville Staple and his band get us all rude-boying along with their Specials classics mixing in well with more recent additions. Kosheen (ft Sian Evans) are a lovely blast from the past. They adequately prove that their older hits have more than stood the test of time. Can it really be twenty years? Nick Parker doesn't play on the Town Hall Square but the short half hour set we see him do with Ben Wain on fiddle on the porch of Foggers Mill gives enough insight into why he's been playing bigger stages at other festivals this summer - and no doubt will continue to do so. Lyrical and witty folk delivered with style.
Not everything about Boomtown worked. In previous iterations, the bars have run like clockwork. Yes, we've grumbled about the lack of real ale on site, the fact that you can buy a four-pack for the fiver it costs per can and the lack of choice at some bars but never before have we felt the need to moan about the queues. Freemans, who run the bars, have dropped a clanger this year. It's not unusual for those standing at some bars to be ten-deep. Only the thirstiest would be tempted to queue for the thirty minutes and more it can take to get served. It's by no means universal but many of the bar staff seem poorly trained and not really aware of what they're doing. Maybe recruiting had been a problem when there's so much fun to be had on the other side of the counter.
On Thursday evening after a miserable bar queue up at the Whistlers Green bar renders seeing Little Dragon nigh-on impossible, I head down the uneven staircase for a rare Downtown visit. I'm keen to see Napalm Death and I'm not alone. I clock the Beavertown Bar and being a bit partial to a bit of Neck Oil, Gamma Ray and their ilk resolve to head back when the numbers have lessened. £6.25 for a pint of Beavertown craft would seem excessive elsewhere but here it's just about bearable. The queues are just downright intolerable though and I'm left gasping. Napalm Death have packed out the Earache Factory tent in Diss-order alley, the ska, punk and metal bastion of Boomtown. The set is everything you'd expect from the Brummie legends; visceral, confounding and dumbfounding with enough dry humour to uproot turnips. The punters in the mosh-pit flail, contort and shake their sweaty locks whilst others look on with sheer horror. "They'll have no energy for the rest of the weekend" says one sensible sort standing near to me.
Seriously though, it's testament to the variety of Boomtown that such extreme metal can sit alongside gentle folk, smooth reggae and all manner of EDM. Some try to pigeonhole the musical styles at this festival but it's at their peril. Diversity is the name of the Boomtown game now. My other Boomtown 2019' regret, aside from not throwing myself into the immersive maze stuff, is that I struggle to try it all. I've got too comfortable with what I know and so don't fully do justice to the mass of on-site entertainment that's carefully curated for us all. I barely pay attention to the new dance stages, Relic and Nuclear, that have risen from the Ashes of Sector 6 and the Bang Hai Palace. I largely just walk through the Psy Forest, The Tribe Of Frog, Twisted Roots and the Hidden Woods on my way elsewhere - and yet in years gone by these are areas that have provided me with many festival highlights. Indeed, aside from that opening ceremony up in the Lions Den, I only spend an hour or so at the wonderful Lions Den stage watching a pop-mighty happy set from Groove Armada. Headliners The Streets are missed and I'm so late for Ms. Lauryn Hill that I miss her whole set (which given her predilection for turning up late seems entirely appropriate).
Sunday evening and the festival is drawing to a close. There are many options I can pick from but I choose to head into the Paradise Ballroom to watch the closing set from Bristolian funk DJ's, The Allergies. I've got an ounce of energy left at the most and I know they'll dance it out of me. The ballroom has yet to let me down with its musical offerings this weekend with Faith Mussa's warm one man band act from Malawi being a particular early highlight. Before The Allergies take to the stage we get a fab, energy-laden set from the London Remixed UKG Orchestra, an impressive collective of brass, string and vocal providing a mix of classic garage covers.
As expected, The Allergies provide more than a fitting ending for a truly, terrific weekend. Random strangers turn around and offer me a can of cider. I gleefully accept. Boomtown is just that sort of festival. Even as it draws to a close, people are still making random (and radical) offers of kindness. I want to be a radical citizen of this radical city for the rest of my life.
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