I’m going to write this triple-event review in a looser style than usual as I think it better befits the subject of having attended three major festivals for the first time on successive weekends, and because it better reflects my mental state after finally re-emerging from the post-mission illness it inevitably afflicted me with.
So in retrospect I’m glad it was the biggest and busiest first, segueing down in size and energy to the more relaxing final one, as the other way round might’ve seen me fall short.
Boomtown Fair, Aug 8-11
I mean “biggest and busiest” in the best possible way, because Boomtown, now in its eleventh year, turned out to be second only to Glastonbury in magnitude and action out of all the festivals I’ve ever attended: a multi-headed monster of an event that attracts a younger demographic than most.
Set within the rolling South Downs National Park just outside Winchester, the 66,000-capacity five-dayer takes place over 25 main stages dotted around 12 uniquely-designed districts, with an overarching theme of sci-fi meets cyberpunk with a dash of Wild West – basically Mad Max meets Blade Runner.
So the arena is probably the most visually impressive of any I’ve previously visited, and I’ve done most of the main festivals across England over the past couple of decades.
All that’s left to experience is the music, and as with Boomtown’s biggest competitors its lineup strength is in its diversity, with most genres covered, leaning more towards urban, dance and electronica, but with a healthy splash of rock in all its forms.
I rocked up on the Thursday night armed with my pro camera and photo pass, and made a beeline for harder-sounds venue ‘The Earache Factory’ to see extreme metal veterans Napalm Death for the first time, and boy did they not disappoint. After grabbing some early close-ups from the pit I managed to get backstage to watch half the set from the wings, before joining the crowd for a final mosh and thrashabout.
The next day was spent camped in front of the ‘Old Town’ main stage for a diverse succession of acts including Asian Dub Foundation, Goldie Lookin’ Chain and goth rock legends Killing Joke, whose set succumbed to some of the unfortunate stormy weather that afflicted the festival in parts, although not enough to cancel it like with Boardmasters in Cornwall the same weekend. Am glad that Boomtown and we ‘citizens’ of Chapter 11 soldiered on regardless.
The headliners I saw were gypsy punk meisters Gogol Bordello – during which I couldn’t help but be drawn into an impromptu slam-pit in one section of the crowd, an unanticipated raucous pleasure – and then The Streets on the impressive Lion’s Den stage (equivalent to Glasto’s Pyramid).
For better or worse Mike Skinner chose to top-load his set with his biggest hits which, unless you were a staunch fan, made it difficult to remain until the end, especially when he also kept drifting into rambling between-song monologues about everything and nothing.
But it was after those headline sets had concluded that Boomtown truly came into its own, with nooks and crannies everywhere to explore: an intimate techno courtyard here, a hidden burlesque bar there. It made for a gloriously random final party night which really reinvigorated one’s enthusiasm for British festivals – something the country always manages to get right no matter what the weather.
Green Man, Aug 15-18
As luck would have it, the rains returned for the first day of my second fest the following weekend in South Wales, completely washing out the opening day’s music programme. But what was almost as much a blessing as a curse for me was that I missed the bulk of it due to heavy traffic on the M4 motorway that had been brought to a near standstill by the day-long deluge.
So it wasn’t until the morning of day two, when the sun made a comeback and dried up the arena, that I could fully appreciate the beauty of its setting, amid the fields and mountains of Brecon Beacons National Park, and with the eponymous giant Green Man sculpture standing proudly in the middle of it all.
The vibe here is a bit more bohemian and family friendly, and with more in the way of cultural pursuits on offer, from workshops, talks and debates, to new age therapies like sound baths and meditation.
The biggest trump card for me though – and for many other punters I spoke to – was the whole dedicated beer festival tent serving ales from independent breweries direct from the keg. This is something you don’t get at most other festivals, so beer aficionados will be in their element here.
As for the music, the festival doesn’t really go for massive marquee headliners so much as a spread of artists who aren’t as commercially famous but are equally deserving of the top billings they enjoy here.
My highlights over the weekend include Eels, Sharon Van Etten, Aussie artists Julia Jacklin and Stella Donnelly, and headlining acts Idles and Father John Misty. As the last two were on simultaneously I had to do the classic mid-set dash from one to the other, but unlike bigger fests where that could involve a schlep from one side of the arena to the other, here the relatively compact site makes it much more feasible.
And on the final night was the ceremonial burning of the Green Man, complete with epic fireworks display, which added a touch of drama and class to an already classy affair.
Even the drive back towards London through the national park was visually memorable, nicely alleviating what is usually an unpleasant hungover mission.
Camper Calling, Aug 23-25
My third and final festival continued the rural aesthetic with another picturesque setting, within the spacious countryside estate of Ragley Hall in Warwickshire, not far from William Shakespeare’s old stomping ground Stratford-upon-Avon. It also has even more of a laid-back family vibe, with dedicated kids’ areas and funfair rides, and a beautiful lake on which to paddle or row boats.
Finally, and fittingly, there was a weekend of unbroken heatwave sunshine in which to enjoy it all – almost too hot, even. Can never win. There was the option of the stately home Ragley Hall itself to have a wander around to cool off, and colourful gardens to explore away from the crowds.
Music-wise, the lineup was predicated on 90s and 00s indie outfits like Ash, Sleeper and The Fratellis, alongside heritage acts like Tony ‘Amarillo’ Christie, and crowned on the final night by a barnstorming headline performance from Britrockers Skunk Anansie, who at one point invited some kids up on stage to rock out en masse to one of their final numbers – a magical moment to see our future generations get so eagerly involved in what is pretty heavy music.
If you’re the type of festival-goer who prefers a bit of peace of quiet over burning the midnight oil then this is the event for you – latest noise curfew of midnight in their biggest campsite, ensuring a decent amount of shut-eye.
But the biggest selling point of Camper Calling for me was the fact that you could literally drive to your camping spot, as they’ve space to burn in the undulating estate grounds, so no arduous lugging of tents, beer and camping equipment from and back to a remote car park.
And that’s why I left this final fest smiling: well-slept, straight out of the campsite in my motor, and back into the countryside with the sun still shining.
Moral of the story: if you go to enough summer festivals in Britain, at least one will be rainless, to the point that you actually miss a fleeting shower or bit of cloud cover. I just have to decide now if I can do it all again next summer, or consolidate in a final Glastonbury visit before I get too old.
But, as this feature hopefully proves, the standard and choice is as strong as ever in the fatherland of festivals, and long may that continue.
All photos by Kris Griffiths except first Boomtown & Camper Calling estate shot, provided by PR.
His full galleries at www.flickr.com/photos/krisgriffiths/albums