Now in its fourth year, the Download Festival has grown way beyond the Monsters Of Rock event that took place at Donington until 1996 – in terms of duration (three days instead of one), number of stages (four instead of one), number of acts (around 100 instead of less than 10), breadth and quality of music.
If you don’t believe us, just check out the “new” Monsters Of Rock event taking place in August at Milton Keynes Bowl, which features such objects of pensioner devotion as Deep Purple and Alice Cooper. On second thoughts, don’t bother.
Thanks to traffic on the M1, musicOMH‘s Download 2006 adventure starts after more than half of Friday’s acts have been and gone. What better way to erase a dark mood then than to visit the “number two”, Snickers Stage, where those veteran punk/funk/yeah-probably-skunk rockers Fishbone are warming up the already sunburned masses in their inimitable style.
Angelo Moore and his South Central, LA troupe don’t “do” conventional. Band members sport everything from a gimp mask to outrageous afros, while playing everything from guitar to saxophone. Sunless Saturday rocks by whereas the likes of Alcoholic get a few hips swaying with their ska and reggae vibe.
Alas, for a band capable of putting smiles on people’s faces it’s a shame that the abiding memory of Fishbone’s set is of Moore dedicating a song to all the “beautiful ladies in the house” before correcting that to the “bitches and hoes”. The song? Let Dem Hoes Fight. Next, please…
We leave the giant tent and veritable dust pit that is the Snickers Stage and negotiate the one-way pedestrian system past the Main Stage where the uninspiring, prog-pop strains of Coheed And Cambria are emanating loudly.
Our next port of call is the “number four” stage – the Snickers Bowl – where all day, each day, top drawer BMX-ers and skateboarders are practising and competing with a view to winning the All-Around and Best Trick competitions on the Sunday.
It’s an unusual set-up, with banks of seats for spectators around the subterranean Bowl and groups of blonde girls handing out free Snickers bars. Of course, with the Caribbean temperatures, anyone who doesn’t eat their chocolate straight away is left with a dark brown mess faster than you can say “looks like incontinence”.
While the hordes watch acrobatics and munch unhealthily, three times a day a band plays a half-hour set on one side of the Bowl, pretty much behind metal railings. One can only wonder what earlier acts Sintuition and Keiko made of this arrangement, but Friday’s headliners Gay For Johnny Depp are not about to let a fence stop them from interacting with the audience.
Frontman Marty Leopard (don’t think that’s his real name, somehow) quickly strips down to his boxer shorts and a natty pair of wings, while a marker pen-made slogan on his belly informs us that the way to “Paradis City” is located in his nether regions. And in case you’re wondering if we’ve made a spelling mistake there, it really does say “Paradis”, thus indicating that Mr Leopard thinks himself a bit of a wit (Johnny Depp is married to Vanessa; Guns ‘N’ Roses are headlining Sunday etc etc).
Leopard also likes accosting women, as some poor unfortunate discovers to her cost as he almost flattens her in her seat while barking the chorus to a song. He manages to severely cheese off the BMX riders too by wandering into their sacrosanct space.
Ultimately, although Gay For Johnny Depp do their bit to at least make an impression, lyrics such as “masturbate – the only way to save yourself”, pronoucements that the Download bill contains “some of the worst bands the world has ever been forced to endure”, and all while playing chaotic, spastic hardcore that rarely threatens to trouble the word “music”, do little to make them an endearing band.
If this all sounds like we’re not enjoying ourselves, think again. The sun is shining and in 90 minutes we’ve already seen/heard three bands that couldn’t be more different from each other and straight off the bat have demonstrated the diversity of modern-day heavy music.
Besides that, we are about to witness the first memorable-for-the-right-reasons performance of the three days and it comes from an unlikely source – Engerica. Now this Essex trio have been big-upped within our very own musicOMH pages but their short set of swaggering rock ‘n’ roll on the “number three”, Gibson Myspace Stage is still a revelation.
In fact, with their blend of trash, Nirvana grunginess and System Of A Down quirkiness, Engerica could just have the potential to gather indie and rock fans in as equal measure as Muse have to date. When their slightly camp and very accomplished frontman half-jokingly says: “For anyone who’s just walked in we are Engerica and yes, we really are that good”, one can but laugh but also nod in agreement.
By this point we realise we haven’t graced the Main Stage with our sustained presence. And so it’s off to watch the Deftones attempt to translate their soaring, emotionally-charged and somewhat nu-metal sound from record to festival. In truth, they only succeed intermittently, and their cause is not helped by stopping two songs – once to avoid a crush in the moshpit (tick) and once because they simply cock-up the intro (cross). Still, they wheel on Soulfly‘s Max Cavalera for a stirring rendition of Headup and all is right with the world.
At least it is until we have our pockets picked by the extortionate catering stalls on the way back to the Gibson Stage. Eight quid for a burrito and a small bottle of water? Here, take my clothes too…
Holes in wallets are eventually forgotten as we witness the tail-end of Cathedral. Former Napalm Death mainmain (now that was a long time ago) Lee Dorrian and his occult-obsessed bandmates whip up a storm with their doomy, psychedelic brew. Not spectacular but surprisingly groovy nonetheless.
Next on the Gibson Myspace Stage come the first of many Swedish bands we will witness at Download – the Backyard Babies. These glam-rock veterans put in a professional performance that is greeted warmly by a decent-sized crowd. It’s like Mötley Crüe all over again, though with less sex and more of a Wildhearts punk spirit. No doubt, the former Wildhearts frontman Ginger (next on-stage with his Sonic Circus) would be proud.
And so to the first night’s finale – Tool. Tool are a bit of a phenomenon. Multi-million selling no matter how long they take between albums; utterly adored by a fanbase who range from 15 to 50 years of age; and yet all this while being purveyors of complex, intricate, mind-bogglingly proficient music.
It’s fair to say that the sound mix tonight is as pure and pellucid as I’ve ever heard, with every nuance, note and noodle discrete, audible and ready to be marvelled at. Weirdo frontman Maynard James Keenan stands at the back of the stage dressed in jeans and a cowboy hat, his voice in fine fettle, although he barely deigns to interact with the audience save for a little joke about people downloading the new album 10,000 Days (quite funny, actually) and the comment: “It’s been a pleasure smelling you all”.
Still, whilst Tool may sound a little too perfect and clinical, there’s no questioning the quality of songs such as Sober, or the fact that there are a million worse soundtracks to sitting in the English countryside on a balmy summer’s evening. All in all, a fine end to the first (half-)day of Download 2006 though it does feel like the calm warm-up before the impending storm…