The British festival going experience is steeped in tails of horror; from Glastonbury’ (in)famous mud to Reading’ burning portaloos, the images that have come to characterise outdoor music in the UK are almost always negative. In stark contrast you have the perception of major international festivals like SÃ³nar, which instantly conjures up images of sophisticated music lovers enjoying the bleeding edge of contemporary aural art, possibly while sporting a mullet. The organisers of the Big Chill have clearly learnt from the mistakes of their UK-based rivals: the weekend of the festival is traditionally one of the hottest of the year, there were ample toilets on site (and I’m pleased to report that none of them were in flames) and they even had masses of showers in each campsite.
Set in the beautiful countryside of the Malvern Hills, the Big Chill locates itself in a deer park in the grounds of Eastnor castle. Thankfully the deer all take a holiday while the festival is in full swing, leaving behind their lush surroundings to make way for 30,000 revelers. The Big Chill’ 9 stages take in a diverse range of music that should satisfy those of a chilled nature. Those expecting 5 hours of pounding hardcore each night will be left sorely disappointed; that’s not to say that the harder side of the musical spectrum is ignored – Funkywormhole (aka the reggae tent) included a fair bit of jungle and, as expected, the Club tent bore witness to some pretty full on beats.
The main changes to the musical programming of this year’ event were the introduction of a dedicated folk stage and the return of jazz to the festival. With folk having achieved critical mass in British consciousness of late, the Village Green stage provided the likes of Tuung, Martha Wainwright and Adem with a low key, relaxed venue for their music, conveniently situated next to the Strongbow cider tent.
Tunng got off to a rocky start, struggling to get their electronic elements in harmony with the remainder of their acoustic arsenal. They sadly never recovered from this misstep, failing to convince many new to the band that all those plaudits were justified. Stretching the folk classification slightly, Mexican flamenco guitar pairing Rodrigo y Gabriela wowed the crowds, undoubtedly buoyed in number by the late cancellation of flamenco + scratching act Ochos de Brujo.
Perhaps the one notable omission from the Village Green was Vashti Bunyan who, presumably because of her popularity, appeared to rapturous applause on one of the major stages. Looking terrified at the size of the crowd staring expectantly at her, the situation was not helped by persistent feedback from her acoustic guitar. At times confirming most preconceived ideas you might have about folk artists by introducing songs with epithets like â€œI wrote this song sitting in a field that was once owned by my grandfather,â€ she nonetheless played a blinding set that convinced all but the most stubborn of her talent.
Bunyan was not the only folkie to go AWOL from the Village Green though, with Lamb’ Lou Rhodes appearing a few hours beforehand. Rhodes’ solo project is a long way from the drum n bass origins of Lamb, with her stunning voice now able to explore a different musical terrain. She knows her audience though and had pretty much everyone on their feet for one of the most heartfelt performances of Lamb’ standout track â€œGabrielâ€ I’ve heard.
The lack of jazz was one of the major bugbears of last year’ festival, but all was forgiven this year with the appearance of the Esbjorn Svensson Trio and Hanne Hukkelberg. EST put in one of the performances of the festival, wowing a sadly rather small crowd on the main stage as the sun set. The double bass of Dan Bergland at times managed to steal the limelight from the titular Svensson’ piano, overwhelming the crowd with the ingenious use of the bow creating a sound not unlike Sigur RÃ³s’. Svensson himself had a few tricks up his sleeve though, using what I can only describe as a slide inside the piano while simultaneously playing. The crowd lapped up every moment, with new track â€œTuesday Wonderlandâ€ (which is also the title of their new album) getting a fantastic reception. Hanne Hukkleberg confounded at least my expectations by not having a perm and, like EST, Hukkleberg’ lo-fi jazz sound overwhelmed the audience at the secluded Sanctuary stage, prompting two encores!
The traditional electronic element of the festival was not left to one side and provided some of the best sets of the weekend. Echaskech kicked off the electronic revolution, proving that the Sanctuary stage is the perfect space for intimate, innovative sounds. At times veering into the realm of minimal techno, they proved the perfect antidote to the bland beats of X-Press 2, who were performing on the main stage at the same time. Coldcut saw out Friday with an A/V mix set that left the crowd hungry for more. Along with staple tracks like the ZeroDB remix of “Everything’ Under Control’ they did some fantastic things with, amongst others, Disney films and Tony Blair’ political speeches. The most innovative event at the festival was provided by Coldcut: their set was being recorded and put on sale the very next day in CD form! London-based Concert Live hauled a lorry filled with CD writers onto site and seemingly spent all night burning off the 2006 CD copies made available.
New Australian resident Mark Pritchard (a.k.a. Troubleman amongst other aliases) opened Sunday with the perfect hangover cure in the form of chilled Psychedelia on Saturday. What was perhaps surprising about the day was that several solid acts turned in disappointing performances – Bugz in the Attic just didn’ seem to click with the crowd that had assembled while Nightmare’ on Wax Sound System’ incredibly chilled set somehow misread the mood of an audience ready for some dancing. Steve Reid and Kieran Hebden (the latter of Four Tet fame) were similarly misplaced, producing what can only be described as pseudo-Reichian rubbish. Hebden had clearly picked up on the pretentiousness of Tom Middleton’ Amber project earlier in the day. Middleton either has the world’ driest sense of humour or is the world’ biggest arsehole. Introducing tracks with words like â€œthese songs are about feelings and emotionsâ€ prompted a collective sigh of “no shit’s from those before him. Perhaps Middleton has taken a leaf out of Matthew Herbert’s Big Band persona, thinking that making admittedly listenable noodley ambient music qualifies as high art all of a sudden. Looking like a cunt in a plastic peaked cap, Middleton really didn’ deserve to be there, or indeed to be making music at all.
The Big Chill’ traditional musical variation was well catered with acts like Amadou & Miriam and Shri, who proved at times alternately extremely talented and a bit scary. Perhaps all this air of sonic art had an effect on what those playing at the lesser tents performed, which would explain Strictly Kev and DK’ fantastically cheesy pop and beats set at the close of Sunday.
Perhaps what is nicest about the Big Chill though is that the organisers really have thought of everything – this is not just a gigantic field with a load of stages and musicians positioned across it. Sporting some of the best food of any festival, or indeed takeaway food stalls in general, that I’ve ever been to the Big Chill is a real culinary delight. And of course, there’ those showers and the toilets where the phrase “tower of shit’s is rarely uttered. It may seem like a bit much to travel literally half way around the world to attend a festival, but the combination of great music and fantastic amenities creates an atmosphere that puts pretty much every other outdoor music event to shame. Yes, even SÃ³nar.