When it comes to festivals I keep my expectations low. I fully expect to spend a weekend semi-homeless in an oversized plastic-bag coffin lacking any form of hygiene; a personal hell only transcended by the occasional live performance and temporary alcoholism. Hence discovering that The Big Chill offers every modern convenience was akin to a child from a deprived-upbringing being welcomed into a (really middle class) foster home. Everything is just so pleasant. Parents actually feel comfortable enough to take their babies around in prams here. There are krazzy arty-installations everywhere, a Guardian stand, herbal tea tent, hell even restaurants. Things get more ridiculous the further you care to explore, there’s a “Body & Soul” area complete with sauna, hair treatments and massages all contrary to my impressions that mud-drenching, rain-soaking and faecal aromas were the only treatments you could receive at your run-of-the-mill English festival.
Anyway festival vibes aside, first act that I see is Little Dragon in a tent exotically named Paradiso with a stage décor of sequin flamingos, giant cocktails and pink hearts that looks like the spawn of Dame Edna and Graham Norton. Most people will know lead singer Yukimi Nagano from her guest appearance on two of the best tracks from this year’s Gorrilaz album; and generally there seems to be very few people who look like they’ve heard a Little Dragon song before. But that doesn’t stop them dragging some songs on for several minutes long with unnecessary dance “re-interpretations”. Escaping through one I make my way to the main stage for Explosions in the Sky, for which most of crowd is scattered around the stage napping, occasionally being awoken by a sudden violent instrumental climax. With the sun setting while they play, Big Chill management deserve commendation for excellent unintentional scheduling.
Next is the headline act of the day, well I know Massive Attack are technically but clearly everyone has come to see Thom Yorke in the hope he might play ‘Karma Police’ so we can have a right long sing-a-long of “FOOOOORRRRAMINAAAAATEILOSTMASELF”. But this is not Radiohead or even Atoms For Peace, just Thom Yorke on the most understated black-curtained stage with only a piano, a guitar and some delay pedals. Though the set is mostly songs from his solo album The Eraser with a few lesser-known Radiohead songs the crowd lap it up, getting slightly hysterical at every opening chord, breakdown and at one point when Yorke just looks up from his piano. Rather odd giving the minimal electronic beats and soft vocals of Yorke’s performance. Ending without a Radiohead big-hitter everyone dispersers a little disappointed.
Having ditched Massive Attack on the main stage for Mystery Jets on brightly-coloured cartoon pirate-ship Clash stage that looks like something out of Super Mario, I find it’s already packed out with hundreds of kids and teenagers. Now this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that the oldies have been filtered off by Massive Attack but it still makes me feel old overhearing lots of kids complaining ‘OMG HOW DEPRESSING WAS THOM YORKE’. After Mystery Jets give us one 80s inspired pop-gem after another I can kind appreciate the contrast, because is it a darn good fun end to the first day. Parents and children seem to immediately disappear at this point as all the late-night dance areas open up with terrible names like CHILL-X and even more awful DJs.
Next morning it seems that the leafy middle-class village-fete setting of the arena has fallen victim to someone graffiting “SONY” everywhere. Spend the rest of day overhearing guys make the same–“HOW DESPERATE FOR ADVERSING CAN YOU GET”–joke to their girlfriends; but then actually start wondering if it is some sort of viral marketing campaign.
Having run in the rain to see Ganglians open the Clash stage, I’m disappointed to find that a band called Midi Midis have replaced them that proudly explain they use actual retro videogame sounds in their music that rouses a similar feeling of pity to not wanting to dampen your parents discovery of social networking. Feeling rather damp myself I stride over to the main stage awaiting to be dazzled by Chrome Hoof who draw a crowd simply by their uh-mazing sequined cyber-monk cloaks as well as their many instruments. As ever trying to explain Chrome Hoof to anyone leaves me spouting a chain of silly made-up adjectives like cyber-funk or galactic doom metal, genres which all sound fucking awesome anyway; and indeed they were, everything after them sounded a bit tame, bland and um antiquated.
On seeing Metronomy for maybe the fifth time now I found out that you can definitely see a band too many times. Everything seemed so predictable right down to every one of their well-rehearsed hand gestures; this pre-third album period is making them as uncomfortable to bump into as an ex-girlfriend before you’ve started seeing someone new. Thankful I pick-up Caribou who is cruising on the Clash stage: Dr Daniel Snaith PhD in electronic wizardry, has clearly done his equations right for track ‘Sun’ from new album Swim as he teases it out just long enough before the bit where it drops “4 real” and everyone dances.
After being undecided whether to see: Kelis, Liars or Patrick Wolf I somehow end up seeing Patrick on the main stage. While a big Patrick Wolf sign is being hoisted, a woman comes up to me asking “Never heard of this Patrick guy, can you tell what he’s like?” flustered that I might actually have try come up with descriptive words I start waffling something about instruments, synths and an eccentric singer-songwriter, but I can clearly see I’m losing her so desperately end with “…a bit like Laura Marling”. She walks to her friends and says “A bit like Laura Marling”, “Oh fuck that” replies the lad of group and they walk off. Cringing internally I promise to never make recommendations again. When Patrick comes on he’s wearing both a polka-dot catsuit and dinner jacket and yet it seems a slightly toned-down outfit for him: somehow tassels, shiny material and hair extensions are lacking. Patrick seems to do the festival thing effortlessly, working everyone up to a partner-hugging mess with a ‘Magic Position’ finale. Next up is M.I.A. so drink is a necessary preparation.
I hardly expected subtle from M.I.A. but everything about her headline set is ridiculously overblown. All the massive LEDs screens are lit up with epilepsy-inducing, nauseating, abrasive images of the “art direction” that has come to define her. Bass levels have been yanked up to the point of rattling vocal chords. All this is somehow excusable, even welcomed: being aurally and visually overloaded is all part of her attraction. Less welcome are her irritating American entourage, with some squeaky X-Factor rejects addressing the crowd as “LONDON” and shouting incomprehensively to a crowd baffled by what response exactly is expected of them. Even the songs are difficult to make out, call me old man Bychawski, but it would have been nice to hear some vocals between all that bass. That said it wouldn’t be M.I.A. without the IN YOUR FACENESS of everything. At one point everyone goes off stage while some boxes are dragged on with bottles on top that leaves me wondering if this is magic routine section of the performance. All is slightly-explained by M.I.A. returning to play ‘Teqkilla’, and then asking for volunteers. A few eager fans seize the opportunity but look somewhere between confused and petrified on stage, like contestants in some surreal live game show. Before anyone can figure out what the rules are to the official M.I.A. drinking game, Maya launches into ‘Paper Planes’ and suddenly everyone wants in on being on stage. People start pouring on, oddly enough all the security team must be off watching Mount Kimbie instead, and it becomes a game of ‘Where’s Maya?’ trying to spot her in the huge crowd now on stage. Being in the spotlight naturally brings out the attention-grabbing dick in everyone and by time the stage is cleared it’s all over. Somehow it’s a fitting over-the-top finale to an over-the-top performance.
On the 7th day Big Chill gave up a bit and rested, as someone spread the good acts a bit thin over the last day. They probably thought everyone would be too knackered to notice come Sunday and slapped Lily Allen on the end of the bill hoping for a few extra ticket sales. Still at least there’s Villagers to hear perform from their Mercury nominated album Becoming A Jackal. Sadly there aren’t many people around to hear Conor J. O’Brien howl his dark poetic musings.
A late festival highlight comes courtesy of DåM-FunK, who might well have a slightly awful name but never ever would I admit this to him in person. Swaggering on stage with a low-slung keytar this man is a living natural reserve of coolness. Smooth 80s funk cut after another follows with Damon Riddick, accompanied by Master-Blazter drumming, sweeping up and down his instrument so effortlessly that it could well have adjoined from birth. Not able to stomach the Magic Numbers, Newton Faulkner and Lily Allen I make a hasty exit, feeling comfortable chilled by some funky vibes.