Live Music + Gig Reviews

The Big Chill 2008 @ Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire: Day 3

3 August 2008

Aaagh! Having got wet through last night, the rain falls again in the morning. Surely Norman Jay can be relied upon to create his usual sundance?

Beginning with some guitar-led electronica he plays an hour of songs that formed his own musical education including tracks from Neil Diamond, Jimi Hendrix and Shirley Bassey.
Then, as has happened every time he has played at the Big Chill, the sun comes out! A selection of ragga, reggae and ska, including The Specials‘ Ghost Town is then served up.

A hoard of twenty, balloon-waving tennis players, a monkey on a stick, several cross-dressing men and a giant inflatable lobster are many of the sights to be seen in the crowd during the MBE’s set which all add to the party atmosphere. With the history lesson over the classics give way to an electro mix of Strings Of Life and the crowd go suitably barmy. This is followed by a selection of house, old school rave and drum and bass. “This is ten out of ten for making the sun come out at the Big Chill so I might retire!” Norman says at one point. Let’s hope he was joking as the festival just wouldn’t be the same without his annual Sunday afternoon set.

We drop by the Cocktail Bar for some classic reggae and Latino tracks courtesy of Reggae Roast before heading on over to catch Nitin Sawhney in the Club Tent. His set is largely made up of drum and bass but has an ethereal vocal samples and uplifting chords give it an extra edge.

Having headed over to the Sunrise Festival’s peace circle fire again to get some proper chilling in, it’s back to the Club Tent. Here we find the much-lauded Flying Lotus who finally overcomes some technical difficulties to make the understanding crowd whoop and cheer to his glitchy melodic hip hop. The Californian delivers a live laptop set that starts off pumping before taking a deep and mellow turn.

Though FlyLo is providing a fantastic set, Esau Mwamwaya is also playing so a trip the full length of the site provides a brief earshot of the final bars of his last track. Festival lesson number 216: remember never to try and see everything, as you’ll end up seeing nothing.

Lesson learned we watch French star Camille, who seems to be completely off her head as she meows and screeches at the crowd. At times it seems a bit self-indulgently pretentious but the crowd join in meowing and she wins through with some great offbeat pop tracks sung in English and her native French. The encore is driving yet tender with Camille’s vocals becoming Kate Bushesque in tone.

A stark contrast is rammed home by the raucous seventies punk of the Buzzcocks, which has enough punch to make your trousers vibrate. It becomes apparent now how the festival numbers have been swollen by those buying Sunday day-tickets, a first for the Big Chill. It means that the crowd is now even more diverse but the festival is surely best enjoyed as a whole rather than just a series of gigs?

It’s clear when performing old favourites like Oh Shit and What Do I Get? that Pete Shelley and his fellow bandmates have still got masses of energy and passion. Finishing on Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve), they’re certainly not a nostalgia act merely going through the motions.

From punk thrashing to the introspective song-writing and touching poetry of the biggest name on the bill, Leonard Cohen. The 73-year-old may have been forced back onto the road due to his manager allegedly embezzling millions from him but he commands such awe and respect that people are just thrilled to have the opportunity to see the legendary man perform live. Muted, calm and meditative his music is there to be savoured but we duck away from his set for a spectacular pyrotechnic interlude.

Over the duration of the weekend the finishing touches have been made to a huge sculptural bonfire with a small wooden house perched on top by artists The World Famous. The Big Warm is a show that sees a fire dance, fireworks and, finally, fire-lighting ceremony take place. The towering inferno that ensues eventually roars and crashes to the ground in a ball of flames. It’s amazing to watch but surely not great for the ecologically aware festival’s carbon footprint?

When we return to the main stage, Cohen’s set has taken a more upbeat turn. Before performing Closing Time in his distinctive Canadian drawl, he skips off stage like a sprightly 21-year-old. Cohen then closes the set with Anthem, which contains the line, “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,” and proves both a touching and moving finale. There are tears in the audience as the whole crowd erupts in rapturous applause.

How to follow that? Well, Icelandic outfit Mm provide a set that is entrancing in a completely different way. Eccentric but wholeheartedly endearing, the band’s mix of weird electronics, layered vocals and multi-instrumental madness (kazoos anyone?) make for an exciting performance of unexpected twists and turns. This includes suddenly breaking into a cover of Kiss hit I Was Made For Loving You! Danceable, melodic and quirky the collective air an Aphex Twin-style number to end.

The Bays, the band that improvise all of their material, don’t rehearse and don’t release music, have the honour of rounding the night and the festival off. They take to the stage with The Heritage Orchestra with whom they have devised a piece of automatic real-time scoring software that allows them to play along. It takes a short while to get going but eventually the mix of orchestral acid house and string-laden drum and bass hits the spot, the tracks getting the crowd going like they’re old classics rather than compositions made up off the cuff.

The main stages may be closed but there’s still plenty more to do on site. Over at the Club Tent, Mixmaster Morris is playing deep house during a somewhat more upbeat set than usual. It strikes me then that I’ve made it through virtually the whole of a Big Chill festival without having heard any ambient music. This could be due to which artists we happened to see or may be down to the sad loss this year of the Sanctuary Stage, either way it’s quite strange at a festival rooted in all things chilled.

There’s nothing mellow about some of the music coming out of one of the Sunrise Festival tents where we drop by one last time for a spot of underground raving to superb tribal house. Then sunrise itself starts to happen. The mist dances across the lakes, the ducks quack into life as people play a piano left in the middle of the grassy bank. This isn’t just a festival, it feels like a glimpse of another way of life (though how long you could sustain it is a different matter!).

Yes, the hugely popular Bill Bailey really should have been on one of the main stages so everyone could see him in the furry flesh and the litter was worse than previous years in spite of the Leave No Trace message. But the Big Chill isn’t simply a moneymaking cash cow; over the years the organisers have requested feedback, listened to it and acted upon it. So while the festival continues to change and evolve, which won’t please everyone, many of those changes will be for the better. The Big Chill has set itself such high standards and is still way ahead of many other festivals of its size in its attention to detail and sheer variety of music and entertainment.

Roll on 2009!

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