The Downs Festival returns, for the 3rd time under this banner and the 4th year of music at the tail end of the summer. The line-ups have felt slightly scattered, as if the event is struggling to find an identity.
The logistics of getting to the festival were well-done, while it was walking distance from the centre, lots of signs around Bristol, with a whole range of shuttle buses put on in addition to the regular routes. The walk across the Downs to the festival arena was littered with both stewards and toilets, and the entry and queues well managed.
It’s been pretty easy to catch IDLES this summer, with their show here being their 48th and final festival appearance of the year. They’ve managed to get pretty good through that as well, showing passion and anger in both their songs and interludes, with frontman Joe Talbot committing to repeatedly state with natural variance that “this next song… is also an anti-fascist song”. Unfortunately, the energy of the band was lost slightly amidst the low volume, exacerbating Talbot’s poor singing voice and spoiling their homecoming somewhat. Despite the sketchy sound, the performance was still excellent, with the whole band bringing power and presence as they blasted out the likes of Heel/Heal, Mother, Love Song, Danny Nedelko, and Rottweiler.
Unfortunately, the earlier efficiency en-route to the festival wasn’t as apparent inside. Bars, toilets, and food stalls were all swamped with huge queues. The range of options available was excellent, with many high-quality local vendors present, but there wasn’t enough for the capacity, and many attendees seemed to divert to finding the shortest queue rather than their primary preference. We managed to briefly catch some of the impressive High Contrast Band, the Drum n Bass outfit, but the long queues and overlapping timetable created only a brief distraction from the mainstage.
Starting with her cover of Iggy Pop’s Nightclubbing, Grace Jones worked her way through the hits This Is, covers of Private Life and Warm Leatherette, and My Jamaican Guy, bringing her unique style of new wave disco to a range of songs. Her enjoyment on stage was palpable, as she worked through a series of elaborate outfits and dance moves during her set. A particular highlight being her highly sensualised cover of the gospel hymn Amazing Grace, before an intense finale of her classic songs Pull Up to the Bumper and Slave to the Rhythm.
Fashionably late or typically delayed? That was the main theme of conversation before Ms Lauryn Hill’s appearance. She had arranged for DJ Reborn, her personal DJ, to keep the crowds occupied until she got on stage over 30 minutes later than scheduled. Not that DJ Reborn disappointed; her old school 90’s RnB and hip hop tunes got the massive crowd moving, building anticipation for the star’s eventual arrival on stage.
Wearing an oversized hoodie and baggy jeans Ms Lauryn Hill brought the nineties on stage with her and got applauded by a crowd that was nearing the stage of irritation by the delays. Coming on stage she started her set by playing Lost Ones, one of the main tunes from her classic album “The Miseducation of Ms Lauryn Hill”, which remains her defining (and only) solo album to date.
A few tunes in Ms Lauryn kept signalling to her sound engineers to make changes to the decks as she seemed unsettled about the sound quality produced by the speakers. Point well-made indeed as the sound quality at the main stage had been hit and miss all day but the artist’s attention to detail and the team’s constant adjustments limited the sound compromise.
Was this a typical hip hop gig? In some ways yes, the songs alternated with speeches on the artists career path from school student to world stages, but what characterised it and set it apart was the honesty with which she talked about her younger years and her struggle to balance school and musical ambitions. Strangely relatable for a superstar, Ms Lauryn talked about her family life and children almost making us feel she could be our successful next door neighbour while retaining her artistic persona through her very high standard and professionalism (punctuality aside).
As both hoped and anticipated by many she sang her famous feel-good hit Doo Wop ( That Thing) with a backdrop of photos from the earlier stages of her career before playing a series of songs from her time in The Fugees including Killing me Softly, Ready or Not and Fu-Gee-La. The soul infused into the songs amplified and accentuated their emotional impact throughout, providing an engaging contrast to the intense skill of her rapping.
The performance kept the crowd moving on their feet through and through, carrying the expected gravitas in an experience that brought fans back to when the big names of RnB and Hip Hop were dominating the mid nineties. The artist spoke about her influences and sang some of her songs most inspired by them closing the gig by staying back to greet fans at the pit and thank them for their patronage.
The Downs Festival feels like it's starting to cement its place at the end of the Bristol summer, and provided an excellent day’s entertainment, but the sound issues and lengthy queues were certainly a disappointment. The line-ups and performances are impressive, yet an improved flow of the acts playing could guarantee a more solid overlap between fan-bases and would probably help avoid late discounts to shift tickets.
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Downs Festival 2019 review
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