Live Review: The Big Chill Festival

Eastnor Castle Deer Park, Herefordshire, August 4th-7th

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It may have a name that speaks of self-satisfied, smoothie-drinking mellowness, but be not fooled. Formerly a fuck-off rave-up known to insiders as ‘[b]Hippygeddon[/b]’, this year’s [b]Big Chill[/b] programme boasts a subtly brain-sizzling convoy of the cream of the underground. Subtle, of course, but for [a]Kanye West[/a], whose planetary ego effectively sends the weekend into its orbit.

Friday, though, belongs to Mercury-jousting hotshot [a]Ghostpoet[/a]. With only one (admittedly ace) album in the bank, concerns are he’ll struggle to fund a 50-minute set. He proves this to be scurrilous bobbins by charming the tent into submission, flinging badges at hungry-eyed punters like money, then offering to distribute the last of said badges to “whoever makes the loudest noise” – cue the hugest frequency eruption we’ll hear all weekend. ‘[b]Us Against Whatever Ever[/b]’ rides the zeitgeist into dazzling new pastures, groaning “I love you like chicken soup, biscuits and lemonade” before el Ghost chops and twists his vocal into a raging psychedelic whirr, winning a one-man sonic showdown and a right-thinking flock of new fans into the bargain. Tasty.

“It’s been a bad year for the women,” observes Neneh Cherry, before going some way to assuage the pain of fairer and grimmer sexes alike with a set packed with classics like ‘[b]Woman’s World[/b]’ and (YES) ‘[b]Buffalo Stance[/b]’. Rabidly as we hail at [a]The Chemical Brothers[/a]’ altar, they’ve at least a slight obligation to play the hits. Disappointingly it’s not until a euphoric ‘[b]Block Rockin’ Beats[/b]’ that the crowd unite, gawping at a ketamine-friendly backdrop and digging up the festival roots. Konono N°1, in pinstripe shirts and white baseball caps, treat the precious few bound to The People’s Ear stage to avant-afrobeat, their hilarious, stony expressions belying loose and limber workouts.

The Saturday sun’s out for [a]Janelle Monáe[/a], who shuffles onstage among a trio of black-hooded robe-wearers uncannily resembling morlocks from George Pal’s Time Machine adaptation. Not to bury her with praise, but comparisons to [a]James Brown[/a] are a bitch to shake. Yet shake she does – and lacking the visuals of her tour, the diminutive dame of dance takes the spotlight all to herself (well, along with her 14-strong ArchOrchestra).
An audience-uniting closing trio doesn’t so much tip on the tightrope as dive into the funky throes of ecstasy caped and cravatted; everyone gets low on her order and, grinning sweetly, she mutters “I made that happen” before being piggy-backed down to the crowd with helicoptering fists by her keyboardist.

[a]Metronomy[/a] are perhaps the closest act of the weekend to a traditional festival band, and relatively new bassist Gbenga Adelekan works the second frontman role like a dream. Most grin-making is ‘[b]The Bay[/b]’, whose clunky synths and funky riffs steep the gooseberry awkwardness of [a]Kraftwerk[a/] in a thoroughly modern strawberry pop smoothie, as Joe Mount’s all-thumbs charm wins indie hearts. Enduring a bafflingly high-billed set from Argos’ finest [a]Rihanna[/a]-lite [a]Jessie J[/a], the final straw comes when a young boy is welcomed to her onstage throne (I mean, come on!) with a wild “brup-diddly-diddly-hup”.

We do believe she wants “to make the world sing”, just not that she’s fully grasped how. [a]Example[/a], livelier, tidier and collide-ier (it’s a word, honest) by half, pogos and yelps and raucously rouses revellers outside the tent to follow. But most PC-conscious (in his own head, at least) is surprise headliner [a]Kanye West[/a]. As the verse of ‘[b]Dark Fantasy[/b]’ kicks in, the stage is empty but for a flurry of scantily clad ballet dancers. Fingers suddenly point to the sound tower. The second level is lined with engineers hunched over laptops. The middle houses a flock of baffled competition winners. Over the highest barrier leans Yeezy, bellowing lyrical – instantly we’re as excited as bacon in the frying pan.

The lion-swagger to Janelle’s panther-prowl, he magically lunges onstage mere moments later. Three songs in though, and he’s a drunkard commandeering an open-mic night – a paranoid-delusional 10-minute anti-media word-wank entertains only a steady draw of boos. Canyonesque downer aside (“I walk down the street and people look at me like I’m fucking Hitler”), it’s a spectacle of magnificence, spanning gratuitous pyrotechnics on and above stage, three separate ‘acts’ and an epitaph for [a]Amy Winehouse[/a]. But as Kanye stands in mournful silence while his DJ bastardises ‘[b]Tears Dry On Their Own[/b]’ and ‘[b]Back To Black[/b]’, the miffed crowd hardly know what to do.

Sunday evening hosts a more eclectic array, and [a]Jamie Woon[/a]’s healthy crowd suggests successful marketing. Alas, the organic branching out of early-hours dubstep introspection by way of inside-out pop is mostly fruitless, offering deceptively MOR tunes and the unfortunate suspicion we’ve been saddled with [a]Craig David[/a]’s new clothes. The People’s Ear, minutes down the path, is relied on to belt out dance until morning sun. Its soundsystem may not be the biggest, but King Midas Sound prove it the most resilient, and infinitely more stimulating than the pill-pushing dross filling out the smaller dance tents.

It’s up to [a]Four Tet[/a] and [a]Jamie xx[/a] to bring things to a head. The former delivers everything the Chemicals failed to, jerking limbs into shapes we never knew existed. Later [a]The xx[/a] man’s bangers bring body and mind to boiling point. Three sub-bass-churning cheers for the festival that couldn’t spell ‘chillax’ if it tried.

Jazz Monroe

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