The Big Chill Festival - Eastnor Castle Deer Park
Live Review

The Big Chill Festival – Eastnor Castle Deer Park, Herefordshire

I had a strange thought as I walked around the Big Chill festival site: I could bring my mum here. Crazy, I know. But it’s that sort of family-friendly, laid-back affair; the crowd, who you’d expect to find in trendy Notting Hill bars or at the Columbia Road Flower Market throughout the rest of the year, seem to enjoy themselves tremendously, but not quite with reckless abandon.

That might explain why thousands of people thought it would be the perfect outing for Baby’s First Festival. That is until they had to push a wonky pram up – what must have seemed like – some of the steepest hills in England. Through mud. But nobody seemed to complain. (Thank God for the Swede who invented Kopparberg.)

For the rest of the 30,000-strong crowd, the weekend wasn’t quite as physically demanding. You could, if you had to, cover the whole site, set in the grounds of the picturesque Eastnor Castle, in under an hour. Since we arrived on the Friday and could only stay for a day, our ambling had more of an urgency to it than we would have liked. The plan was to get through the whole site before the music started on the main stage. Some of the attractions we came across were an Art Car Boot Fair, Dereliction Drive-in, Enchanted Garden and the epic Mr Scruff’s Tea Tent. There were also a vast array of food and drink stands – not quite your (or is it just me?) usual festival fair, with options like chorizo rolls, barbeques and mojitos.

The first music act we stumbled upon, was Dan Black’s set in The Coop. We were basically drawn in by the catchy electro tunes we could hear from outside. I’ve since learned that he’s created quite a buzz already (in BBC-land anyway) – being listed as one of the 15 best up-and-coming acts for the year.

Heading for the opposite side of the site, we wandered past the Castle Stage, where I couldn’t resist the mellow acoustic strummings of Fink – a broodier version of José Gonzalez, and a great new discovery for me. I’m always partial to a spot of navel-gazing, and Fink’s powerful vocals were mesmerising. It was still resonating in my mind long after we had left. And it had nothing to do with the fact that I was standing right in front of a speaker – with his music literally booming through me. It’s brilliant, by the way, that for most of the acts, you could stroll to the front of the stage with no effort at all. (It was a nice change from my near-death experience during a Amy Winehouse slot at the 2008 Glastonbury.)

I was practically comatose after Fink’s mellow attack, and only managed to catch the last few songs of Noah & the Whale’s set on the Open Air Stage. With songs like “5 Years Time”, they were reliably crowd-pleasing, judging from all the high-spirited, head-nodding going on around me. Their cheerful tunes were perfect for the Big Chill vibe. But I couldn’t get into it. My head was still full of Fink.

Next, we headed back to the hard-to-miss, Rizla Arena, where Jon Carter was behind the decks. It was like Ibiza, as I imagine it, but with mud – a reminder that we were quite lucky to have such a scorcher of a weekend after the previous week’s rain.

Too worried I’d miss something, I headed back to the Open Air Stage to see British reggae legend Dennis Bovell in action. His dub band delighted the crowd with tons of charisma and laid-back vibes. But the biggest cheers were saved for, what would turn out to be, the highlight for most people on Friday: the fantastically energetic (Mercury-nominated) Friendly Fires. Despite his Mr Bean-esque dance moves, lead singer Ed MacFarlane seems to have a huge following of the teenage girl variety. The band belted out big hits like Paris, Kiss of Life and Jump In The Pool, ending their set in style by calling several carnival dancers on stage to thoroughly exploit the samba rhythms. Having these magnificent dancers on stage still couldn’t deter the uber confident MacFarlane from doing his crazy dad dancing. (Perhaps one day this will be normal. Then we can all dance at weddings without making people cringe, hurrah.)

With 30 minutes between sets, and a queue-less bar next to the stage, there was plenty of time to grab a drink before Calexico – the band I was particularly keen to see. It’s fair to say the indie contingent was well catered for at the Big Chill. But where, say, Fink’s lyrics are all about day-to-day life, Calexico triggers the Big Screen imagination. The evocative, tex-mex sound of Joey Burns’s and John Convertino’s Tucson alt-country collective is, for me, like a melancholic soundtrack to a Cormac McCarthy novel; you get totally absorbed, visualising desert plains, border towns, ghosts and drifters and, perhaps, even a token dead gangster.
They kicked off their set with El Gatillo – packed with brilliant trumpets (all bands should have trumpets.), rocking guitars and haunting whistling; and then proceeded to entertain with plenty of hits, including Victor Jara’s Hands, Roka, Crystal Frontier, Two Silver Trees, and Guero Canelo.

Lead singer Joey Burns has a disarming stage personality and he was affable throughout the set, but I got the impression the band was willing the crowd to be more responsive. I couldn’t see, but I suppose – beyond the first few rows – there was not much more than foot-tapping and gentle swaying going on. Those who were there were perhaps a tad too chilled out, and the rest were over at the Castle Stage, watching an audio-visual set by acclaimed director Chris Cunningham. We headed over there after Calexico, and I’m sure it was spectacularly trippy for the majority of the huge, transfixed crowd, but my head was full of Calexico’s big sounds. Again, not necessarily because I was next to the speakers, having their music blasting into me.

We ended the day back at the Open Air Stage for an energetic, electro-house set by Basement Jaxx. From their bright, noisy, blinger of an opener “Good Luck”, it was all fluorescent outfits and big fun throughout – playing old favourites, for which the majority of the festival-goers seemed to have trekked back for from other stages.

Heading home in the wee hours of the morning, I realised that, apart from being drenched in sunshine all weekend, there was something else at the Big Chill which Glastonbury doesn’t have a lot of: teenagers. Glastonbury has been trying to woo this crowd for years. Could it be that Britain’s youngsters are into old-school raves? Perhaps. Or do they, by any chance, just have a healthy interest in Britain’s eclectic indie scene? I’d like to think so. But perhaps they just thought it was a great place to bring their mums.

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