Last year saw the first Big Chill since its takeover by Festival Republic, the group already responsible for the Latitude and Reading & Leeds festivals. While the festival was peppered with more big-name headliners than in previous years, and its demographic altered slightly with an influx of younger chillers, fears that the original, almost utopian Big Chill atmosphere may be lost forever were unfounded. While the festival that started out in 1995 as a Mecca for crusties and horizontal hippies with a love of ambient music may have changed beyond recognition, the Big Chills evolution so far has been a gradual one. So what does the Big Chill hold for 2011?
Early arrivals to the beautiful Eastnor Castle Deer Park in Herefordshire on Thursday may get the pick of the camping spots but they also get treated to a set from Mercury-nominated dubstep soul star James Blake. The action proper then kicks off on a decidedly indie-flavoured Friday. The main Deer Park stage will host eccentric electro-indie from Empire Of The Sun and Ariel Pinks Haunted Graffiti while more straightforward synth-led indie comes from Fenech-Soler. Wild Beasts serve up some of their unique melodic melancholy, Electrelane break their extended silence by providing some whimsical indie-rock and Here We Go Magic will be soothing the masses with their gentle indie strains. There is also room, however, for Romanias Mahala Rai Banda, whose energetic gypsy music should raise many a smile, Neneh Cherry, with her first UK festival appearance in years, and The Chemical Brothers who headline with the mesmerising AV show that left many a mouth agape recently at Glastonbury.
Meanwhile, Friday on the Revellers Stage sees Chipmunk, reggae icon Horace Andy, Hercules and Love Affair and Croydons dubstep don Plastician line up. Also appearing are Aloe Blacc, of I Need A Dollar fame, New Zealand soul star Ladi6 and the decidedly unchilled Cubic Zirconia, wholl be providing anything but family entertainment if they play staple song Hoes Come Out At Night. Tastes for leftfield electronica will be satisfied by Luke Vibert and DJ Food over on the Starburst stage and the thoughtful, understated hip hop of Ghostpoet on the Peoples Ear stage.
If Fridays theme is indie, Saturdays would seem to be pop, featuring mainstream headliners that would not have been seen at the Big Chill just a few years ago. The main draw is Kanye West, whose appearance could be hyped up into a Jay Z headlines Glastonbury moment for any members of the Big Chills old core audience, but having the multi-platinum selling global superstar playing his only UK festival date this year should spur considerable excitement regardless of any doubters.
More likely to raise eyebrows amongst the old guard is Saturdays poptastic line-up of Jessie J, Calvin Harris, Katy B (another Mercury nominee there), Dionne God-daughter of Winehouse Bromfield and Example. This is, after all, the festival where the announcement that Mika would not be performing as scheduled due to illness was met by a loud cheer in 2007.
However, during a time where its a case of expand or die for many festivals and considering that many of the Big Chills old crowd of ex-ravers may have settled down to a quieter life of kids and early nights, its not surprising a younger audience is being courted. Besides, there is still an astounding amount of variety on show beyond, and indeed amongst, the big names. And for those that do have kids, theres the Little Chill featuring magicians, clowns, workshops and even DJ Dads kid-friendly DJ sets led by Tom Middleton. Hes not just entertaining the children though; this years festival sees the Jedi Knights man playing a set with Global Communication cohort Mark Pritchard on Friday, playing a solo set on the main stage on Saturday and curating his own stage. Also outside of the Top 40 fare are the Midnight Beast, who pick up where Goldie Lookin Chain left off with their comedy hip hop, including songs called Just Another Boyband and Booty Call; the Brandt Brauer Frick Ensemble, who produce dance music but rather than nodding behind their plug-in fuelled laptops, play it live on real instruments like the piano, cello and xylophone and Buraka Som Sistema who are guaranteed to put on an enlivening set of a very different sort.
The main stage on Saturday will also be graced by Hollywood actress Lucy Liu, who may not be known for her singing skills but is playing the lead character in Amelia Sparks Diary. The fictional audio movie by The Bullitts (brainchild of Jeymes Samuel) also features vocals from Tori Amos and Mos Def (neither of who will be attending the festival) and Jay-Z protg Jay Electronica (who will) and is backed up by a disturbing story thats been unfolding via that most modern of mediums, Twitter. Its an intriguing, original project and how it to translates to the stage could be well worth checking.
Also worthy of note are Metronomy (another Mercury nominee), insanely jolly dance music producers The Knock and 2manydjs, who will close the main stage with their mashed-up, bootlegging party starting.
As has become usual in recent years, Sunday takes a decidedly Radio 2 feel with headliners including Rodrigo y Gabriela, whose breakneck acoustic guitar virtuosity will cause many a gaping jaw, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy and Americana from the North Mississippi Allstars duo. Then there are the sunshine vibes courtesy of Norman Jay and Femi Kuti & The Positive Force, roots reggae from Steel Pulse and the beautifully wistful, tear-stained acoustica of Warpaint. Beat-based crooner Jamie Woon will also add to the easy air of the Sabbaths line-up as will the soulful, funk-inflected strains of Smoove & Turrell, who, having caused a quiet stir for the past couple of years at the festival, have finally been given a deserved slot of their own.
Its not all easy listening though. Four Tet presents his brand of genuinely creative electronica, while Frances answer to Pendulum, Dirtyphonics, serve up drum and bass and Chris Cunningham, who terrorised the Big Chill crowd with his horrifically unsettling yet magnetically brilliant AV set two years ago, is due to close the main stage on Sunday.
While the Big Chill 2011 may show further signs of being under new management, it still represents a breadth of musical variety that cannot be found at many other festivals, taking in reggae, folk, indie, house, dubstep, rock, and, yes, pop. The festivals ambient roots may be fading further into the past but they too can also be found on closer inspection of the line-up. Add this to the return of the much-celebrated art trail, a field set aside for a variety of calming therapies and the stunning setting in the Malvern Hills and youve got a festival that is still very much worthy of attention.