The Big Chill 2011 @ Eastnor Castle, Ledbury 4th-7th August 2011

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Day One

Location. Location. Location. If Kirstie and Phil were looking for the perfect place to hold a festival the Big Chill’s site, nestled in the cleavage of two little hills near Ledbury, would come pretty close to the top. Big enough to pose more than a few annoying ‘who do we go and see out of X and Y’ clashes but compact enough to get from one side to the other in a matter of minutes it’s also (as the name implies) got a pretty chilled out vibe too. No hassle, no attitude, no gangs of marauding nut cases…we’ll save all that for our big cities eh? This year’s Big Chill provided more than its fair share of weird and wonderful festival moments though, from ranting rappers to a highly amusing non stick nipple pastie…

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As with many festivals these days the traditional three day format is gradually seeping into a fourth, with Thursday seeing dubstep poster boy James Blake deliver a glitchy, kidney bruising set…seriously, anyone standing near the speakers stood a fair chance of haemorrhaging when the bass kicked in. Elsewhere on the site the White Rabbit Tent played host to Last Man Standing, a glorious mix of prime era Bowie, Bolan and Sensational Alex Harvey band on a bender round Soho, fronted by the enigmatic Max Vanderwolf.

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The rest of the evening blurred in a haze of Drambuie cocktails and Burrow Hill cider, not a combination that’s to be recommended if you wish to retain your dignity…or dinner. As one day oozed into the next we did manage to experience the voyeur’s delight that is the Electric Hotel though, a dance event set across several floors of a hotel, built in the grounds of the festival. You, the audience sit and watch the action unfurl through the windows, listening in on wireless headphones. It’s a weird feeling, you’re taught not to do this kind of thing but…well…isn’t there a bit of voyeur in all of us? Just me? Oh. Okay.

Day Two

Friday kicked off at some unholy hour in fine style with the 11 piece Balkan beat machine Mahala Rai Banda which, literally translated, means “dance your asses off”…probably. There’s some kind of primordial link between the ears and feet that makes it pretty much impossible to stand still when you’re listening to this kind of stuff. Happily respite was in hand with the return of scuzzy kraut-psych girls Electralene, fresh from a three year hiatus, who won the ‘unexpected cover of the weekend’ award thanks to their rocked up version of Small Town Boy.

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Caught a little of Here We Go Magic and Fenech Soler (thanks to the proximity of the two main stages at The Chill it’s pretty easy to toddle between the two) before one of the big surprises of the festival, the shroud wearing pint sized goth popette Zola Jesus.

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Think Florence with a bit more of an edge singing a bit of Sisters of Mercy and you’re only halfway there. After running backwards and forwards across the stage pressing her hands against the speakers, literally feeling the music pump through her body, she humped one of the sets of wheels used to move speakers about and lay down on it, scuttling about like a bug. Brilliantly bonkers. She’s got one of those Tardis voices…how the hell does something so big come out of something so small? I guess studying opera for 10 years helped.

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Next up, embracing reggae, ska and soul, rising New Zealand rapper Ladi6 came to party, fresh from a gig supporting Erykah Badu. Appropriately enough there’s a touch of Badu-ism to her vocal too, reaching its peak on the pick of the set, the soul meets hip hop beats of Bang Bang. Classy. Bonus marks for wearing a glittery top hat in the middle of the afternoon too. Nice touch.

Meanwhile back over at the main stage Ariel Pink, wearing the kind of dress your nan might donate to Oxfam, was doing what he does best..having a bit of a hissy fit. In between some fine ramble pop (that’s a new genre that Mr Pink seems to specialise in…singing in a blah blah blah kinda way) and some kind of twisted Zappa-esque mini musical of a track called (possibly) Get ‘em, We Got ‘em, he smashed his mic stand up, wandered off stage, came back, lit a fag, then taught his microphone a lesson it’ll never forget. Finally he just walked off leaving the rest of the band to play on. Clearly the bassist had soon had enough too as he unplugged his guitar. Arial wanders back on, surveys the wreckage and starts unplugging stuff as well. There’s at least 15 minutes left of the set but, in the immortal words of Bugs Bunny, that’s all folks. Seemingly he does this kind of thing a lot. Always leave ‘em wanting more eh? Smart guy or whack job? Go, see him if you get the chance and decide for yourself.

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After the mayhem must come calm. Kicking off with the self sacrificing Bed Of Nails (half Antony and the Johnsons, half The Associates) Wild Beasts were a shot of beauty straight through the cortex. Echoes of the clever end of 80’s pop (Tears For Fears, Japan, The Associates, Talk Talk) ran through the set, a perfectly judged mix of the old and new culminating in a spine chilling Hooting and Howling. Blissful.

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Providing the kind of weird juxtaposition that you only get at festivals like this Neneh Cherry (yes…she’s back, back, back) reminded those in the crowd old enough to remember her heyday (late 80’s) just what a talent she was…and happily enough still is. In contrast to a lot of artists she’s wisely updated some of her better known tunes, delivering a more funked up Man Child for instance and an ass pleasingly bass heavy spin on Buffalo Stance. The first of many tributes to Winehouse came with an acknowledgment that “it’s been a tough year for the girls…Ari Up, Poly Styrene and Amy” and a spirited cover of Martina Topley Bird’s Too Tough To Die. Cherry impressed…ahem.

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Prime era New Yawk disco anyone? Oh go on. You know you want to. Tough. ‘Cos even if you didn’t Hercules & Love Affair are irresistible. The brainchild of New York based DJ Andy Butler they’re unashamedly OTT, fronted tonight by a rather lovely camp black queen with the biggest calves I’ve ever seen. Must be all that dancing. Oh…and voguing too.

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Remember that? Girlfriend vogued herself into another dimension. Of course none of this would matter a jot if the music weren’t any good. But it is. It’s brilliant, shimmery glitter in the eyes, sweat down the back, unmentionable bodily fluids up in and around every orifice D I S C O. If Sylvester (legendary disco queen) were still alive this is the band he’d give up his high heels for.

Top that. Empire Of The Sun gave it a pretty good shot with a spectacular orgy of costume changes, dancing fish creatures and some good old rock n’roll guitar smashing. In amongst all the eye candy the Fast Car (Tracy Chapman) influenced Walking On A Dream was pretty damn special.

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After a quick break for refuelling, a Levi Roots chicken wrap soundtracked by the equally soulful Aloe Blacc in the background, day one closed with The Chemical Brothers doing what they do best…one big party tune after another, all performed in front of a huge screen featuring BIG, BOLD GRAPHICS.

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Music for the ADHD generation…and their mums and dads. God, have they really been around for 20 years? Jeez.On the way back to the tent we ended up stumbling into the White Rabbit Tent again for another show by Last Man Standing. This time it appeared as though the entire cast of Alice In Wonderland were off their tits and dancing like loons. But then again that could’ve been the cider?

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Day Three

A near full tent at 12pm is an unusual thing, but I guess there’s a lot of attention on Dionne Bromfield right now. Vocally she’s got more in common with lighter soul voices, the likes of Duffy for instance, rather than her godmother but she won the hearts of every single member of the crowd with a confident and, hell, let’s say it, brave performance just two weeks to the day since the death of her inspiration, Amy Winehouse. After a sassy run through first single Foolin’ the applause went on for a good minute and a half, almost moving her (and me…I’m a soppy fool sometimes) to tears. I’ve rarely seen such a reaction after a track. Bravely she even tackled Winehouse’s Love Is A Losing Game, dedicating it to “my mentor, godmother, boss and an amazing person”. Somehow she kept it all together, doing the track, and Amy’s memory proud. Now that’s soul.

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Out on the main stage Crystal Fighters continue to beat new fans into submission with their curious mix of pop, folk, rave, rap…you name it really. They’re a pretty perfect festival band with an alarmingly large number of tracks that you’ll already know without knowing it was by them. Solar System, Champion Sounds and the summertime anthems for teens Plage had all lodged themselves in the collective brains of the crowd who kept muttering to each other “I didn’t know this was by them…”. “Here’s some motherfucking noise for your British Summer” yelled the lead singer, literally just as the sun came out in one of those magical festival moments. The track in question, Be alone (almost an old skool rave up) was pretty hot stuff too.

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The Bullits, seemingly a concept driven group featuring Lucy Liu, Jay Electronica, Jeymes Samuel and Idris Elba (Luther and The Wire) played their first show live here today and, whilst the concept may have been lost a little (there’s a bunch of mini movies on You Tube right now…something about Amelia Sparks, murder, bent detectives…I need to watch ‘em all really) there was no mistaking the energy of the show. In true hip hop style a bunch of ‘em got down and dirty at the front with the crowd with Jay climbing over the barriers (brave soul) mid performance.

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One of the big hits of Glastonbury this year was Janelle Monae, a one woman Outkast who’s seemingly quiet comfortable slipping between showband tunes, soul, jazz and Bond movie style theme songs (during which she theatrically defeated some bad guys on stage…KAPOW). A bit of a musical chameleon she’s not adverse to plundering from the masters either, so a spot of moonwalking, a cover of I Want You Back and the whole James Brown dance routine (replete with cape draped on her shoulders at the end) all seemed to be fair game. A seriously impressive show. Believe the hype. It’s well and truly on the Monae.

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Metronomy’s take on Miami Vice meets Torbay delivered some of the biggest grin inducing tunes of the weekend with the double header of The Bay and The Look entertaining a growing crowd getting set for Ms Jessie J. Some performers make a decent stab at engaging with an audience but Jessie’s a natural. After limping onto her throne (that broken leg still clearly a long way healing) she bantered with everyone from “dem bad men” down the front to random passers by at the back of the field “they probably think a cat’s being tortured” and even the photographers leaving the pit after their allocated trio of songs “just cracking off one last shot eh mate?” You can’t help but love her. After dedicating Who You Are to “Amy and the many other innocent people who’ve lost their lives recently “ Do It Like A Dude and Price Tag saw several thousand teens joyously singing along…even “dem bad men”. Job done.

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Then things went a little weird. It’s safe to say that Kanye West’s set divided opinion somewhat. It began promisingly enough with Kanye appearing not on stage but on the giant viewing tower in the middle of the crowd. A few moments later he was onstage…as if by magic. How did he get there? Three theories were doing the rounds. Theory One – he had a tunnel built under the crowd according to one of the security guards. Er. No. I think not. The idea that Kanye West had a 100 foot tunnel dug under a Herefordshire field just for that one trick is a little far-fetched. Plus I got that bloke from Blackadder to do some investigative digging. A load of Baldricks. Theory Two – he just ran through the crowd one of the photographers suggested to me rather sniffily. Had he seen this? Well, no. But he thought Kanye West, one of the biggest rappers in the world dressed in a flashy white suit could negotiate his way through several thousand fans. Hmmmm. Theory Three – it was a lookalike. That’s my favourite.

Maybe the whole gig was done by a lookalike. That would explain a few things. Mr West explained that he was late (45 minutes or so) because he was screaming at people to get the show as he wanted it. Judging by his voice (which sounded pretty shredded at times) he wasn’t kidding. That wasn’t the weird stuff though. That all came with a rambling 10 minute speech (seriously) about how hip hop’s not dead, how he wants to give a better product to y’all, how he was jerked around by some award organisers recently and, most bizarrely of all, that people look at him like he’s Hitler. Wow. Hitler? Dude, get a grip. Get therapy. Crack open a Babycham or something. Unsurprisingly after a lecture like that a good 50% of the crowd were decidedly in an un-Kanye kind of mood.

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This is a bit of a shame as he actually seemed to have made a real effort with the show, employing a nest full of Black Swan style ballet dancers, a huge backdrop and, rather modestly, a big plinth for him to stand on. I’ve seen a few hip hop shows (is Kanye still hop hop?) and few artists bother to put so much effort into the frilly stuff so I guess that’s to be applauded. The music? Oh yes, almost forgot about that. Well the big hits, stuff like the King Crimson raping Power, Diamonds From Sierra Leone and Goldigga (all of which have their roots in previous tunes of course) still went down a storm. Our Kanye loves the old vocoder though doesn’t he? Track after track was vocodered to eternity until you began to wonder whether you were watching a man or a Dalek. I’m gonna exterminate yo ass, mo fos. After nearly two hours, and with a substantial number of people actually booing him (a trifle harsh really), he paid tribute to a special lady he met at a house party four years ago, Margaret Thatcher. No. Not really. Amy again. Bless her. Rather than attempt to sing one of her tunes though he got his DJ to play a couple of snatches of Tears Dry On Their Own and Back To Black while he wandered about the stage, looking for what was left of his reputation perhaps? He left us with an ominous “Media lighten up on your artists who are still here!” Judging by other reviews of this show they clearly weren’t listening. Maybe he should’ve vocodered that bit too eh?

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In need of a little fun the Enchanted Garden provided some light relief in the shape of three ladies wearing very little and performing some kind of comic burlesque skit. The highlight came when one of their nipple pasties (the thing they stick over the nipple to protect their modesty…’cos no one knows what a nipple looks like eh?) started to peel off. She vainly tried to stick it back by massaging her breast, making it look like part of the act before giving up and tearing it off to loud applause. Bravo young lady. If life gives you lemons whip out a nipple. As the night wore on a wander through the Art Trail (a series of installations running up and down a small hill) revealed a small group of young chaps performing The Decemberist’s Mariners Revenge Song…all nine minutes of it…in the hazy moonlight.

Day Four
Up with the larks again and just in time for About Group, a curious new-ish confection from Hot Chip’s Alexis. White boy soul, funk and krautrock style freakouts all rubbed shoulders in the reimaging of Terry Riley’s 67 tune You’re No Good. Classy stuff.

Speaking of classy stuff Birmingham’s Steel Pulse delivered a master class in roots reggae, even somehow getting the sun to turn up and shine. They are, of course, pioneers of the UK reggae scene, responsible for arguably one of the greatest albums of all time Handsworth Revolution (little did any of us know at the time that Handsworth and large swathes of the UK were just about to be plunged into the worst riots for generations).

Ku Klux Klan, “still rocking against racism for old time’s sake” observed lead singer David, remains a stunningly powerful piece of work and, whilst things are a whole lot better than back in the 70’s it’s sad that, all over the world, people are still fighting over skin colour, religious beliefs, tribal loyalty or even which postcode they live to. Good grief. Standing there in the sun though, listening to the gentle reggae beats and watching a band that’s seemingly even better and tighter than they were 30 years ago the whole world seemed a nicer place. More thoughtful inspirational reggae and less mindless wannabe gangster posturing and perhaps the world actually would be. As the crowd bayed for more (sadly festivals rarely allow for encores) the sun actually went in for a while. Spooky. It came back out for Norman Jay MBE though.

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Legend has it that it’s never failed to shine for Norman’s sets ever since he started appearing at
The Big Chill way back in 1754. A dedication to “our number one soul sister” and a spin of Rehab got some of the crowd up on their feet but most were quite happy to lay down in the sun and let Norman do what he does best. Good times. Great tunes.

Afrobeat legend anyone? Femi Kuti is as close to Afrobeat royalty as you can get, being the eldest son of Fela. He’s continuing his father’s good work too, with Africa for Africa providing a rallying call to corrupt African leaders to stop squandering the wealth on the people. Yes. We’re looking at you Mugabe. An impromptu award ceremony capped the set off with Femi getting a Songlines award, live on stage, for Best World Music Artist. Thoroughly deserved judging by the serious amount of booty shaking going on in the crowd.

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No stranger to shaking his rump the godfather of rock and one quarter of one of the biggest bands of all time Robert Plant chose the Big Chill as the scene for the last ever gig by his current outfit, Band Of Joy. The original Band Of Joy existed for a pretty short period of time (less than a couple of years), way back in the mid 60’s. This new incarnation hasn’t exactly hung around either, 13 months or so according to Plant. Whether this now leaves the way open for ‘that reunion’ (for which Plant and co were offered an eye watering $200million for in 2007) remains to be seen. What’s clear is that, at 62, the voice and stage moves are all still well and truly in good working order. It’s a real shame in a way that The Band Of Joy has come to an end though.

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They’re a seemingly odd crowd, Patty Griffin (40 something country / folk rock), Buddy Miller and Darrell Scott (50 something country boys) plus a percussionist (Marco Giovino), bassist (Byron House) and, of course Robert. But then again, given Plant’s genre hopping post Zep career and recent folk/country direction maybe it’s not such a strange combo after all. Whatever your thoughts on the make up of the group, it works, with Plant seemingly more than happy to share the vocal spotlight with Patty, Darrell and Buddy. The set was a mix of covers including a generous smattering of Zepplin tracks (including a crowd pleasing Misty Mountain Hop), a Richard Thompson number (House Of Cards) who Robert acknowledged was a “beacon of light” and a Porter Wagner song (A Satisfied Mind) sung, rather movingly actually, by Darrell Scott.

Emotions also ran high as the set came to a climax with Plant looking genuinely touched about the whole thing, although he did find a moment of humour when he presented Patty with a Wolverhampton Wanderers FC hot water bottle to keep her warm. After furious applause the set, and this particular Band Of Joy, finally came to an end with Zep’s Leadbelly inspired Gallows Pole. Waving one last time to the crowd Robert shouted “Whooooo are ya!” and vanished off into…well…who knows where he’ll go from here. $200 million would buy a hell of a lot of hot water bottles though…

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Right, nearly there. After witnessing the pocket sized new Queen of Soul Sharon Jones a few years back the chance for a return visit was impossible to resist. For the uninitiated she’s part of the Daptone stable, a New York based record label run the proper old skool way (recording on analogue kit, pressing vinyl releases, writing and recording original soul and funk tunes that already sound like classics). Each gig pays homage to those old soul revue shows too, with the band, The Dap Kings playing samples from the Daptone’s greatest hits and the group’s leader Binky Griptite whipping up the anticipation. After soulful solo tracks from two of the label’s latest signings, The Dapettes, Sharon Jones exploded…almost literally…onto the stage and, for a good hour or so, blew the roof of the place. Dammit it that woman can sing, dance and woo a crowd better than anyone on earth. Seriously.

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The highlight of the show had to be her recreation of dances from the 60’s, a frantic 6 minute run through everything from the Funky Chicken to The Railroad. Just awesome, out-dancing even the Godfather himself, Mr James Brown. Appropriately enough (given that the Dap Kings played on the Back To Black album) Sharon stopped singing Lucky In Love mid song and touchingly paid her own tribute to Amy Winehouse, watching us “up there”. The Big Chill had echoed with her music all weekend long and, out of all the tributes paid this one, from one true soul queen to another, perhaps struck the biggest chord of all.

Review – Daron Billings
Photos – Katja Ogrin

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