It’s been 17 years since I experienced a summer with no Download Festival to hang it around. The first time I went I didn’t have a mobile phone, but a pager. To communicate on it, I’d have to talk to a payphone, queue, dial up a number I’d hastily written on a piece of cardboard, then leave a reply to the message my mum had left me two days previous: “Would you like us to pick you up from the train station, hope Deftones were good, love mum xxx’.
A lot has happened in the 17 years that have passed, both for myself, and for Download. There has been an array of classic Donnington moments, most of which I was there for, as the festival has – building on the foundation of the classic ‘Monsters Of Rock’ events that have taken place at Donnington since the dawn of time – grown quickly and comfortably into British rock’s definitive big weekend.
I saw Metallica play the worst-kept secret on site in 2003 – the name NOTALLICA was listed on call sheets backstage – and crammed into the tiny Scuzz tent as new bassist Rob Trujillo made an early public outing. I saw AC/DC headline in 2010 – they brought their own stage that only they could use so that they (read: their roadies) could wheel a massive train onto it during their song ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Train’.
But the whole thing? Cancelled? Because of COVID-19? I’ve never seen anything like that…
Impressively, the good people at music promotions giants Live Nation – who not only bring you Download, but hipster commune Latitude and Leeds and Reading Festival each year – have pulled together a tonne of audio-visual treats. These pre-existing and new performances and interviews will hopefully quench the sizeable disappointment of a year without the festival rolling into town. They’re calling it Download TV, because it’s all about Download and you can watch it on a TV (via YouTube).
Confusingly, you can’t download it at all, not without doing all sort of dodgy things with wires and stuff. I don’t know anything about that. I’m just here for the rock.
My wife is always trying to get me to do yoga with her. I’ve only been married for two years and I’d say at least seven per cent of our marriage has been her asking me to do yoga. But if all yoga was like DO.OMYYOGA – which Download TV is kicking off with today – then I probably would do it every day. Basically it’s – get this! – yoga but set to doom music. I really like doom music. I think it’s just about as meditative as music gets, all deep, squishy bass and vast, cavernous rumblings.
“Great music is a synthesis between sound and silence” reads their website. I don’t really know what that means, but it sounds like something a really bad music journalist would write. I’m feeling good!
No-one’s wasting any time in getting to the good stuff on the telly; first come personal favourites Dinosaur Pile-Up (and some excellent desert island zoom backgrounds!) and then the curious electro mosh sounds of Black Futures. This is a good laugh, this, I think, until Chester Bennington’s pre-Linkin Park band Grey Daze turn up with their new video to single ‘B12’, which features both Munky and Head from Korn.
I have a break, I clean out my pet guinea pig’s cage – and now I’m smelling like I should be smelling half a day into a music festival – only to be lured back in by some excellent footage of Airbourne, a band who, to their credit, manage to make every single thing they do look like the most single fun ever. Though I wouldn’t want them to test the theory, I’m sure they could make euthanising a litter of puppies seem entertaining.
I remembered that amongst the bands I was going to see at Download today was Minnesota emos Tiny Moving Parts, so drop singer and guitarist Dylan Mattheison a text to I’m sad to miss them. He replies: “We were going to provide some rock and roll for y’all with a highly energetic performance! We were bummed that we couldn’t make it but we’ll make sure to save it for next time.”
After a bit of Biffy Clyro, Deftones and some WWE NXT footage – indie wrestling is always a treat to take in at Download – I watch KISS. They’re great, but they’re making an awful fuss about not playing the UK ever again. Like, dude, I bet there are five more ‘Final UK appearances’ before KISS and I call it a day. Feel a bit sad.
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It’s going to be a good day today. I feed the guinea pigs and they only seem marginally traumatized by yesterday’s diet of hard rock (and kale).
To brighten my mood further still, I received a call from Andy Biersack of Black Veil Brides fame. They were supposed to make their long-awaited return to Download yesterday, so I’m wondering how he’s coping with the disappointment of not being there.
“Oh, it’s so sad, honestly,” he says. “We were really looking forward to it. Andy [Copping, Download’s big boss] and everyone at Download have always been so kind and we were so excited to return to the festival. In lieu of performing there – or well, anywhere right now – we’ve been trying to use the time to work on a new album.”
I watch a tonne of interesting chats with rockstars on the telly. There’s Jessie Leach from Killswitch Engage (always a man with something righteous and inspiring to say), Myles Kennedy from Alter Bridge and a bit later, ramblings from Turbonegro frontman Hank Von Hell. There are plenty of musical highlights interspersed with the rambling and the wise, mind. Employed To Serve covering Lamb Of God’s ‘Laid To Rest’ being the top of the pile, which now provides an answer to the much pondered question, “What do you think it would sound like if a planet and another planet collided?”
It’s also nice to revisit Creeper making their debut on the main stage from a few years ago. Elsewhere, alt. popster Poppy reminds me why I was so excited to see her profile popping up within rock magazines at the end of last year. There’s a blast of nostalgic Funeral For A Friend and I enjoy the interview with Brit actor extraordinaire Paddy Constantine (he’s in a rock band called Riding The Low). It serves to comprise an eclectic undercard to a quickly incoming, brutal main event…
Look, see, it’s drummer Niko McBrain and manager Rod Smallwood (who last time I saw was shouting at some toast in a hotel lobby for being too small) to talk us through some of Iron Maiden’s biggest and most evil hits. This is exciting! So many big songs, so few bits my mum would like. But at least there’s ‘Fear Of The Dark’ and that’s an almighty number to call it a day on.
In the end, the two best things I see on Download TV today aren’t musical in the strictest sense. First, 10-year-old internet sensation Nandi Bushell, who destroys their kit playing a rendition of ‘Toxicity’ by tonight’s mainstage headliners System Of A Down, with all the ferocity of hungry ants munching on a dead wasp. There’s a bit of modern-day freakshow the Circus Of Horrors too, which makes me grateful for the fact I’m not eating at the time and a video message from site director John Probyn, who shares details of changes being made to the Download site. He explains where are the new campsites are going, where the new central transport hub will be located and so on.
It’s a clear, confident nod to Downloads future. A reminder that, while this year fell due to extraordinary circumstances, in the words of wartime sweetheart Vera Lynn fronting Cannibal Corpse, “WE WILL MEEEEET AGAIN, CHEW THE FLESH FROM YOUR BONE, AGGGH!”
Musically, today is all killer no filler, with big, bold and anthem filled sets from The Darkness, BABYMETAL and Alestorm, with a 9pm curfew in sight (every gig goer over the age of 30’s dream), so we can all switch over from Download TV to tune into Daniel P Carter’s ever-excellent Radio One Rock Show for the closing moments of a weekend saved by hard work, ingenuity, technology and – I’ll be dead honest with you – the wonder of my guinea pigs.
As fake Download Festivals go, it’s been pretty special. I’ve missed seeing the man in the hat, though. It’s not Download until you have a confused conversation in a too-loud beer tent with a bespectacled man getting very enthusiastic about Skindred playing a secret set later. I wonder what he made of digital Download. How he’s coped with his creation on ice.
I reach for my phone, I chuckle at the memory of my shite pager and I call the aforementioned big boss of Download Festival, Andy Copping.
“It’s felt weird and I’ve been frustrated,” he says. “But the TV shows have kept me occupied. Doing something for the fans. It’s just made me even more driven to come back next year and make something really incredible…”
Andy, I say, there’s something I really want to know. Your trademark cowboy hat. Do you keep that on even when you’re not on site?
He laughs. “The hat is only ever for Download – I don’t want to break that tradition!”
And the tradition will be back?
“The tradition… and Download…” he insists, “will be back…”
Download 2021 takes place on June 4-6 at Donnington Park