The Big Chill started life twelve years ago as a monthly Sunday club in the mattress-strewn confines of Islington's Union Chapel. Back then there were eclectic line-ups, brain machines and open access to a new-fangled technology called the internet with an open-minded approach to music and the focus on encouraging people to exercise their right to relax.
Since then the Big Chill has grown, largely organically by word-of-mouth.
With just 700 people attending the first ever Big Chill festival on the Welsh borders in 1995 this had grown year-on-year to 29,000 at last year's event but somehow it manages to retain its warm intimacy and unique personality. Now a three-day spectacular in the stunning surroundings of Eastnor Castle Deer Park in the Malvern Hills, the ethos of the Big Chill of musical eclecticism, relaxation and open-mindedness has remained intact.
Unlike many festivals, the Big Chill is far more than a series of gigs by big names where you can barely see who's on stage anyway unless you want to get crushed at the front. At Eastnor you can virtually eyeball the artists and still have room to dance. Yes, there are established artists on this year's line-up like Jose Gonzalez, Coldcut and Sparks or those who have just broken the big time like Lily Allen, but there are always many new artists to be discovered and new names to take to your heart. Acts who have made their tentative first steps on the road to stardom at previous Big Chill events include Zero 7, Gotan Project, Röyksopp, Lemon Jelly, Talvin Singh, Amy Winehouse and Goldfrapp, so the chances are you will have an early opportunity to see some of tomorrow's big names.
Fresh acts for your ears to feast upon include Infant Joy, Art Of Noise founder-turned-journalist Paul Morley's latest project, ex-Orbital maestro Phil Hartnoll's Longrange, summer anthem-slingers Echaskech with their half ambient, half dirty disco euphoria, including the excellent Hella Good, and Domino signings Psapp, purveyors of lounge-y, off-kilter cool. Nathan Fake plies his fractured electronic warmth while The Heritage Orchestra promise a full 45-piece band on stage and The Shadow Orchestra bring their experimental, melodic electronica to the lush green hills of Eastnor.
There is a notable increase on this year's bill of modern folk artists and singer/songwriters playing acoustic sets with even a special Village Green stage set up to cater for Martha Wainwright, Adem and Tunng amongst others. Other acoustic guitar-wielding artists include Fink, Vashti Bunyan and Nizlopi but the best known singer/songwriters to feature are surely Scottish duo, The Proclaimers, who are guaranteed to engulf the crowd in misty-eyed nostalgia to the sounds of Letter From America and I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles). Meanwhile Scritti Politti, aka Green Gartside, continues his comeback to live performance after 26 years, showcasing latest offering White Bread Black Beer and Frenchman Sebastien Tellier serves up his unique brand of eccentric electro-psychedelia.
Five acts you must see:
2. Lily Allen
3. Kieran Hebden & Steve Reid
4. Scritti Politti
Described by John Peel in his autobiography as "a marvellous, euphoric event", the Big Chill is chilled by name but only partially by nature. Yes, there are plenty of acts you can kick back and relax to such as Aim, Alucidnation, Roger Eno and Nightmares On Wax and DJs including Big Chill stalwart Mixmaster Morris and XFM's Nick Luscombe but that tells only half the story. The name may make many think that it's all about ambient snoozing but that belies the fact that if you fancy something slightly more uptempo you can listen to the Balearic tones of José Padilla, Pathaan and A Man Called Adam or you can dance till your feet hurt to X-Press 2, Mr Scruff, party-starters Bugz In The Attic or legendary DJ François K.
Giles Peterson will be offering his usual varied set of sounds from around the globe and the seemingly ageless Bristolian DJ Derek will be playing a selection of classic reggae while Notting Hill Carnival mainstay and Big Chill favourite Norman Jay MBE will hopefully maintain his knack of making the sun come out for a set that always proves to be one of the festival highlights. If you crave more leftfield sounds then check Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet) and veteran free-jazz drummer Steve Reid's collaboration, West End favourites the Blue Man Group's first-ever festival appearance or, if you fancy a completely unique experience with lots of laughter, take in a unique set of cover versions from Kraftwerk to The Doors as played by The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain.
It's not just about the music though. As well as its stunning setting, the festival also offers the often stunning and at times challenging Art Trail. This year sees one-time Roxy Music member, ambient pioneer and artist Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings piece take centre stage. An ever-evolving art installation that has an astounding 77 million possible permutations, it guarantees a beguiling sight for those wanting to take some downtime. There is also the Body&Soul area where you can pick up a wide variety of relaxing treatments including Reflexology, Shiatsu, Reiki and Aricular Acupuncture (the apparently painless process of ear acupuncture).
Five things you must do:
1. Visit Brian Eno's 77 Million Paintings.
2. Expand your musical horizons.
3. Admire the view.
4. Laugh, smile, dance and be merry.
The atmosphere is warm, welcoming and friendly with children actively catered for with three of their own spaces and in that respect there is an all-inclusive, hippy-style feel to the Big Chill. However, it also prides itself on being at the forefront of modern technology with an onsite internet café and the cream of the world's VJing talents (that's a Video Jockey in case you wondered!) lending their images to the music.
Attention to detail is of paramount importance and that shines through in the location, the varied music and the wealth of different experiences on offer, from human snail racing to speed dating to a croquet lawn. There are also cinema and comedy (including Arthur Smith of Grumpy Old Men fame) in the Media Mix tent, a 24-hour café and creature comforts not normally associated with festival life like hot showers.
There is far too much to cover in just a preview. More sights to see, music to hear, experiences to be had but combining all of these elements together in beautiful countryside result in what is a truly holistic festival. As far away from a huge, corporate festival, splashed in sponsorship as you could wish to imagine, you won't be herded around like cattle or have your tent ripped out of the ground by over-zealous security guards at 6am on Monday morning.
Fun, relaxed and magical, the Big Chill has an atmosphere and uplifting spirit that most soulless, money-absorbed festivals can only dream of, but don't just take my word for it! Savour for yourself this celebration of music, film, art, creativity and, above all, life.
The Big Chill is on 4th-6th August at Eastnor Castle Deer Park, Herefordshire, HR8 1RL. Weekend tickets are available for £120 plus booking fees. Ticket information is available here.