What’s going on? It never rains at the Big Chill! Okay, while this may be only true of recent years the weather really does not look promising during the journey to the Malvern Hills, but just as we arrive onsite, the sun magically emerges and beams down from the heavens. We pitch the tent overlooking the valley where the main festival village is located and are reminded just how stunningly beautiful Eastnor Castle Deer Park is. Setting has been almost as important as the music to the organisers ever since their first festival in the Welsh Black Mountains ten years ago and by paying such attention to detail they have grown from a small Sunday social in a converted north London church to a phenomenon with a capacity that now stands close to 30,000.
Bags of talent count more than big names here where variety and eclecticism are stretched to breaking point: Finnish indie chillers, Husky Rescue vie for attention with the folky tones of Tunng, while veterans A Certain Ratio ride the crest of the punk-funk revival before Rob Da Bank encourages some crowd participation with Blur‘s Song 2 – and the festival has barely begun. The Fatback Band take to the Open Air Stage and work through their back catalogue of traditional, disco-edged funk. But the song everyone is waiting for is the classic I Found Lovin’ which forms their finale and receives an extended, singalong airing.
A stark contrast from such warmth is offered by the enigmatically elusive Detroit techno collective, Underground Resistance. They evade the media and shroud themselves in secrecy, so it feels a privilege to hear DJ Julien & Gonzague‘s tight, clinical techno balanced with warm synths and touch of cool jazz and fellow UR member, Suburban Knight’s (aka James Pennington) set with its euphoric chords and machine gun breakbeats. While it all bangs away as techno should, some respite is soon needed so we duck back outside to catch London Elektricity‘s set. This is drum and bass with added flavour as soul-laced vocals combine with lightening quick MC-ing, breakneck live drumming and a hint of the bizarre. But still we crave something a little more sedate so we head to the calm of the Sanctuary Tent.
Jerome Froese, current member of electronic pioneers Tangerine Dream and son of founding member Edgar, plays solo material to a happily horizontal audience. Whooshing chords are self-accompanied on guitar and at times reach the brink of the self-indulgence which decimated the audience of his father’s band in the early eighties. Yet his music always manages to retain its form without descending into an elaborate navel-gazing exercise as can happen so easily with ambient music. Gentle, warm and beautiful, it is complimented perfectly by the kaleidoscopic, patterned backdrop and icy blue visuals.
Things then take a very odd turn. You can’t get much more surreal than watching a bunch of rapping puppets at 1am but that is exactly what Puppetmastaz provide from their Punch and Judy-style podium. They even manage to get the sleepy crowd on their feet and dancing with their hilarious, Cypress Hill-style hip hop.
Not averse to the extraordinary herself, Roisin Murphy takes to the Open Air stage to round the night off. Playing material from her well-received solo debut, Ruby Blue, producer Matthew Herbert‘s found sound backing gives an edge that is poppy enough to be accessible but offbeat enough to stand out, as on the memorable If We’re In Love. Herbert’s influence is most noticeable when Murphy makes up a backing track by sampling herself several times and layering each noise before drums and acoustic guitar are introduced for a minimal country-inspired number. It is certainly eccentrically leftfield and not as instant as her work with Moloko but it is intriguing music you feel compelled to get your head around nonetheless.
And so ends day one with the bases of funk, techno, drum and bass, ambient, puppet rap and other as yet undreamt of pigeon-holes covered already: it certainly is good to be back.