Live Music + Gig Reviews

Big Chill 2009: Day 1 @ Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire

7 August 2009

Big Chill 2009: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

Now enjoying its 15th year, the Big Chill 2009 was advertised as a four-day festival for the first time. While there wasn’t a full programme of bands and other entertainments lined up on the Thursday, there was the small matter of Noel Fielding of The Mighty Boosh, wandering across the gorgeous Eastnor Castle site as the Zombie King while a world record attempt was made (apparently successfully) to capture the most made-up undead revellers on camera.

A catalogue of minor disasters, lost cars and torrential rain mean that while we arrive on site by 10pm, the tents are only pitched at 3am, so any zombie-dancing is completely off the cards.
Friday morning is in stark contrast to the torrential downpours that have created mini mud baths all over the site. Now, the hot sun beats down. The Rizla Arena, introduced here last year and most recently seen at London’s Lovebox Weekender, is back to give an eclectic collection of music-makers and music-players a spot to DJ for a willing crowd.

Providing the entertainment from decks situated in a mock-up of the Rizla music van that toured in the 1920s, the opening weekend set comes from none other than Gruff Rhys of the Super Furry Animals. Playing an extraordinary mix of material that takes in the likes of honky-tonk and rockabilly, the fun levels never drop.

As the sun continues to shine the arena, with its bouncers monitoring the entrance and exit, its stages furnished with beanbags and sofas, and with the general outdoor summery club vibe, starts to feel like a lost Ibizan club. And so it seems entirely appropriate for Coyote to take over and play some Balearic grooves. By the time Jon Carter‘s huge house beats take over, the crowd has entirely forgotten that they are actually in a field in Herefordshire.

However, in a field in Herefordshire they were, and so it was over to the Castle Stage for Sweet Billy Pilgrim, who play a melancholic heartfelt set. Tim Elsenberg’s music is melodic and mildly touching but it’s doubtful they’ll go on to enjoy a Mercury-winning career, given the competition they face. Overall the trio’s set is like Holland: very nice but rather flat.

Over at The Coop tent (formerly the Club Tent), Marina And The Diamonds performs a handful of tracks from her forthcoming debut album. The local girl has her family over from Abergavenny for support as she tries to find a place in an over-crowded pop world of young female singers. She proves to have a powerful voice and certainly tries her best to put on a bit of a show with her choreographed dance moves giving the crowd something to look at. Of her small back catalogue of tracks, recent single I Am Not A Robot is the highlight, but a loyal following also enjoy Obsessions and Seventeen.

Shortly after, Dan Black plays his exuberant mix of ’80s keyboards and jaunty pop. His set is highly energetic and Black is a genuinely charismatic showman but his brief set fails to imbue the audience with the same enthusiasm.

Twickenham’s Noah And The Whale have much more about them over on the Open Air Stage and when frontman Charlie Fink sings, “Blue skies are coming,” as the sun beats down, it forms one of those special moments that the Big Chill seems to specialise in. Their set of sweet sounds is upbeat, with the odd hoedown thrown in amongst a confluence of shoegaze, rock and folk. Best known track 5 Years Time is then aired, containing the lyrics of, “Sun, sun, sun,” which at that point is high in the sky and slow-cooking summer-starved, pasty-white arms and legs.

Gablé, a bunch of Frenchmen and a solitary woman, take to the Castle Stage and provide a set of what can only be described as performance art. These are the festival moments you hope for, where you see a band you’ve never heard of, expecting one thing (perhaps some folk wonder) and are instead faced with a heavily bearded Frenchman bellowing, his cohorts playing along on the recorder, the xylophone, and of course the Hoover, and occasional primal screams emerging from the depths of the stage. In fact, some of the tracks are well devised, but most of it stands out for simply being bonkers.

More Mercury nominees follow. Friendly Fires are somewhat more conventional and, while they may be slightly retro at times, their hooky electronic indie really galvanises the crowd. The star of the show is singer Ed Macfarlane who bounds around the stage, drenched in sweat, banging his mic on his head to create extra rhythm. The brass section, kick drum and bass guitar combine to create waves of noise that then kicks off into an extended dance track as one track flows into next.

On Board continues the uptempo hip shaking before the set’s high point Paris arrives, leading into Ex Lover. Another extended dance workout sees the singer doing his best arse wiggling, hand clapping Mick Jagger impersonation. A memorable performance ends on Jump In The Pool, with three samba dancers taking to the stage to shake their stuff to a flurry of South American beats.

A change in tempo comes courtesy of Arizona’s Calexico who mix Mexican Mariachi brass bursts with country calm, with vocals in both English and Spanish. It’s mellow and warm.

Over at the Castle Stage, Chris Cunningham presents an audiovisual feast for the senses. The maverick director mixes lasers and lights in time with the music and visuals, and remixes the videos as well as the tracks. He airs Aphex Twin‘s Windowlicker, turning the sound of an electric window going up and down into an instrument for scratching over the top of the mutated track.

Other visuals include Star Wars, where a lightsabre fight between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader sees sabre strikes in sync with beats, Adolf Hitler giving a speech while breasts bounce in time with kick drums, and an alien baby in a wheelchair snorts coke (taken from Cunningham’s short film Rubber Johnny). Nightmarish, yes, but creatively it’s astounding. And yet thankfully it’s not the last thing on before bedtime. Basement Jaxx are on hand to dilute some of the horrific visions.

The first night main stage headliners draw a huge crowd as they arrive armed with a cavalcade of familiar hit singles. Having already played a fair number of festivals this year, as well as a UK tour, the Jaxx are pretty comfortable with their set and draw fantastic performances out of singers Vula Malinga and Brendan Reilly. Oldies like Good Luck, Red Alert and a sublime stripped back version of Romeo are mixed in with a few cuts from new album Scars. They do well to struggle on when occasional sound issues threaten to trip them up. And perhaps, an hour and a half to two hours is a little long; there are too many down moments when all the crowd want is the hits.

To end the night, something more sedate is on offer over at the Sailor Jerry Rum Bar where Don Letts and son Jet play reggae, a dubstep remix of Deadmau5‘s I Remember and a dub version of the Grace‘ It’s Not Over Yet. And so ends a varied, inspiring and at times downright scary Day 1 of the Big Chill 2009.

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