The Big Chill 2009


Now reviewing a festival where I didn’t manage to see the main headline acts Basement Jaxx, Orbital and David Byrne, might seem a bit strange but The Big Chill is a different sort of festival. I also attempted to negotiate the weekend with my two kids (aged 3 and 5) in tow. Luckily my wife was there to help on Saturday and Sunday. Actually the Big Chill is very family friendly and this is my 3rd time at the event so I knew pretty much what to expect.


I didn’t camp this year, taking advantage of the fact that I live very close. That I was able to go in and out every day at different times of the day is worthy of praise for the organisers. They did a great job of directing traffic to the right places, keeping the car parks accessible and generally being helpful and respectful of the venue. On that note, the Big Chill is set in acres of beautiful rolling countryside belonging to Eastnor Castle near Ledbury in Herefordshire. The site is usually a deer park and a tranquil and sparsely occupied camp site but is transformed into an esoteric playground for the weekend. The festival’s variety, friendliness, manageable size (about 30,000 people I think) and general coolness have helped it to grow in popularity and stature over the years.


I popped in for a while on Thursday in the hope of seeing some of the record attempt to capture the largest number of zombies on film. With a cast of regular festival-goers this was part of a new Chris Boyle directed film I Spit On Your Rave that was being shot at the site. Although I saw plenty of zombies and was offered to be made-up as one myself, the afore-mentioned kids in tow issue meant I didn’t manage to see the actual filming. Hope it went well!


Friday was pretty tough too in terms of being able to photograph anything but I did manage to catch snippets of The Leisure Society, Sweet Billy Pilgrim and Sneaky before having to curtail the day. The first two acts weren’t really up my street. The Big Chill has a lot of niche acts, particularly those that merge musical styles and genres and experiment with non-standard instrument line-ups. They mix these type of set-ups with DJ sets on the main two stages, regular bands and comedy acts. This is what gives the Festival its uniqueness and is excellent for making new discoveries. Sneaky fell a little into that bracket with his accomplished electric double-bass playing. Hearing an instrumental version of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit covered on this instrument was interesting but not quite enough to get me really excited.

I was a bit gutted to miss Basement Jaxx and to not be able to check out Friendly Fires, Calexico and particularly Dennis Bovell but Friday was just a day to put down to experience!


Saturday was a new day and a much better planned experience. I got to the Castle Stage, the official second but often more interesting stage, for 12 o’clock to see Icelandic songstress Hafdis Huld. I saw her 2 years ago at the Big Chill and was pleased to see her this time on the same top form. In the tradition of weird line-ups her band comprises of Hafdis on vocals, 2 acoustic guitarists one of which sometimes plays a banjo or a small pink electric ukelele, and Sarah on keyboards. The music is sugary inoffensive pop with a quirky twist to the lyrics. Maybe not something I would listen to normally but a good start to the day’s proceedings and punctuated nicely by Hafdis’ typically Icelandic take on the world. She explains the meaning of one song by saying you can get in the paper in Iceland by catching a big fish as there are no murders. She has also sewn a little sign of her name so people remember the name of the band.


Following this, Suns of Arqa on the main Open Air Stage are one of the Big Chill’s trademark collectives of musicians. Founder Michael Wadada, along with Youth from Killing Joke and other accomplished musicians, melds different Indian melodies and again it’s interesting but doesn’t really live up to its promise. Their website suggests they should be something I would like and maybe I should give them another chance but I don’t feel they managed to excite very much today.


One benefit of having the kids there is that you go to see things you might otherwise have missed. As well as the music stages, the Big Chill has a number of smaller (but large) tent-style stages, a cinema tent, a Victorian funfair, an art trail and a number of installations such as the Dereliction Drive-In. Here, crashed up old cars have been set in front of an outdoor movie screen and graffiti’d up for people to sit in, be photographed with, clamber over and add their own graffiti.


Moving on past here we headed to the Big Chill Nights circus-style big-top tent. As its name suggests it is mainly a venue for the night-times at the Festival, which go on until 4am. It plays host to comedians, DJs and cabaret acts but from 12 – 4 each afternoon it had the No Fit State Circus performing their shows for kids. This was hilarious and one of those cabaret type performances with plenty of slapstick that kids love and has parents in stitches due to the inuendos and carefully designed adult humour.


A camp pair of aging Hi-De-Hi cloned ballroom dancers, even called Barry & Yvonne, compered the proceedings with plenty of audience embarrassment, showing of large pink pants and their own over the top dance routines. They were accompanied by a great little jazzy band who improvised their way through the show on accordion, sax and double bass. The other acts had some brilliant circus balance tricks and a slapstick couple performing a comedy gymnastic/balance routine. As I write I don’t feel I’m doing it justice but it was amazing and held the attention of both parents and kids for a full hour.


Then it was off to another indoor/outdoor tent stage called the Coop to see fusion band Ska Cubano. I was only allowed to photograph 1 song in the pit, strange rules seeming to apply to different stages, but this was enough to capture the energy from a very popular band merging ska and reggae with Cuban rhythms.


Heading back to the main stage we de-camped for a while in the sunshine and listened to the sounds of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra wafting across the crowd. Founder Simon Jeffes died some years ago so this reformation led but his son Arthur was billed as Music from the Penguin Cafe. Even if you haven’t heard of them you will know their music as it has been appropriated so often for TV adverts, such as Telephone and Rubber Band used on the old One to One mobile phone adverts. Their complex time signatures, musical ability and pleasing use of strings combined to be a Festival hit with the discerning crowd.

The Invisible followed and were pretty good but not much more. After that we left on a high and called it a day for Saturday. An evening spent sitting outside the house drinking too much wine, beer and cheap brandy kept us in the Festival spirit though! At times we could hear the sounds of Orbital drifting across from Eastnor too.


Again it would have been good to see Alice Russell, Lamb, Spiritualized, Bonobo and Orbital but festivals are all about missing half the bands aren’t they!!


Our Sunday started a bit late so my first assignment was at the Words in Motion poetry tent. I had been asked to photograph the students from the local high school John Masefield in Ledbury performing poetry and rap songs.They had worked with poet Shane Solanki and Hereford rap band The Anomalies to produce pieces they could perform here. Another example of how the Big Chill respects and interacts with its environment. The kids did amazing and drew quite a crowd from passers-by. I bet some of those Artist wristbands won’t be getting scissored off too quickly! This was at the same time as Big Chill favourite Norman Jay, renowned for bringing the sunshine with him. In fact, the sun shone all weekend and the little bit of mud hanging over on the site from weeks of rain was completely dried up by Sunday. As I write this the gloom and wet air is back so this was a real Summer window.


Back on the Castle Stage, urban punk poet legend John Cooper Clarke gave a relaxed, sometimes cutting performance, and despite looking very old and extremely thin, had the crowd in his pocket. Referring to youngsters as the “Under 40s” he rolled out line after line and ended with the pleasantly visceral classic Evidently Chicken Town. Cover your ears kids. Then the long trek round the back of the Open Air Stage to access the photography pit was worth it for another legend Max Romeo.


The Jamaican roots reggae star and his band skipped through classic after classic, ending up (well almost at the end of the set) with an accapella version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song. The Festival usually throws one or two reggae/ska bands like this in and they always light up the proceedings and get the whole crowd swaying and skanking. DJs either side of the set usually play loads of top reggae mixes too, really cranking up the sunshine!

Max Romeo was followed by re-discovered psychedelic artist Rodriguez. Personally I think he would have been fine left in obscurity but some of the music was quite rocky and an ok enough background as we wandered round the food stalls.


Next, still on the Open Air Stage were for me the discovery of the weekend. Much touted (in the programme anyway) Mali band Amadou & Mariam mix African ryhthms with funky beats and rock guitars. In this case it really worked and they were a big hit, getting the crowd dancing and tapping along. Welcome to Mali. I think I feel an iTunes purchase coming up. Wondering how we would keep the kids occupied long enough for us to stay for at least one of the main bands, we stumbled across the Bubble Inc. stand. Well we’d seen it before and witnessed the Ibiza style foam bubble pool but this evening it proved a great distraction as Sam Sam the Bubble Man (as seen on Blue Peter no less) made giant bubbles with sticks and rope, bubble swords and other such devices and proceeded to encapsulate kids and adults alike within huge glistening bubbles. Along with the bubble and foam machines spraying delighted kids all around, a couple of hours passed here pretty swiftly!


Then the big decision came – whether to watch David Byrne or Gong. Although the legend tag can suitably be rolled out for David Byrne the temptation of re-living some of the very mis-spent periods of my youth were too great as I headed across to the Castle Stage for Gong. As it was, David Byrne went on stage on time and Gong (or their roadies at least) had an interminably long soundcheck so I could have caught some of both. Never mind, with the huge screens from the Open Air Stage displaying David Byrne in view against a backdrop of floating burning lanterns in the night sky and The Big Burn, where a giant wicker man sculpture was set on fire amidst fireworks and much rejoicing, I went down to the pit for one last time to experience the madness of Gong.


Daevid Allen, dressed in a glittery skull pyjama suit and a pixie/wizard hat took to the stage to rapturous applause and launched the band through sections of their seminal Flying Teapot, You and Camembert Electrique albums. Along with original members Steve Hillage and Gilly Smyth, Allen was on amazing form. Most of the music was recognisable but difficult to identify which album it was from. Perhaps that reflects the state of mind one is usually in when listening to Gong! The big screens displayed swirling subliminal graphics – perhaps not that good for my wide-eyed and by now almost feral children – and the crowd gave an almighty cheer as Daevid Allen offered the time-honoured phrase “Would You Like Some Tea?” Gong-ites will know what that means, others will probably be mystified!


We left the site with the sounds of Radio Gnome Invisible accompanying us through the campsite, signing off another successful Festival for Katrina Larkin and her team. Last year I felt that it had been overtaken a bit by clubbers. This year the laid back vibe, the eclectic mix of music and the family feel was back. There was plenty for clubbers to get excited about but the Chill was back and the wide appeal that has made the Festival its name was much in evidence.
Good job.


Review & Photos – Steve Bulley

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