Download Festival – Day 1 Report: All The Magic, Mud & Misfires

On the ground at the alt haven...

It is the Mecca of Rock & Metal music and has been now for 21 years – Download Festival. Once again, 100,000 fans have descended onto Donington for five days’ worth of moshing out and partying hard ‘til the early morning hours. With the festival very much in a transitional phase, experimenting with some first-time headliners and a new breed of bands that raised a few eyebrows when the line-up was announced, CLASH decided to join the notoriously friendly and welcoming Download community in the fields for the 2024 edition. Here’s what went down on Day 1…

Ah, that good old English weather hey? After the absolute scorcher that was Download 2023, you had to know that this year was going to be a bit of a washout. Sure enough, as we arrive onto site the heavens open with force, which would remain the case on and off for most of the day. With this being the case, it’s a tiring first day spent soaked through, trapsing about in the mud and sludge. But harnessing that metal spirit, we swear an oath to the Rock Gods that a little mud and rain isn’t going to stop us having a good time this weekend.

After spending some time getting the bearings of the enormous site (it’s this writer’s first ever Download), we start the day with prog-rock giants Polyphia on the Apex Stage, who have drawn a sizeable crowd for their mid-afternoon slot. “What’s up mother f**kersssss” is the greeting of choice from guitarist Scott LePage, before the band launch into a dazzling shredding display. It’s an impressive instrumental set, with steam and fire erupting from the stage as they keep the audience mesmerised with their fast and intricate guitar picking. LePage does a great job conducting the crowd too, getting them to sing along to their riffs and encouraging plenty of pits and crowd surfers. It’s a good start to the day. 

As we slide in the mud across to the Avalanche Stage, the Video Game character fancy dress theme quickly becomes apparent. There’s lots of Pokémon, characters from the Super Mario brothers’ franchise and people with Sims’ headbands. There’s also some brave souls in full inflatable Dinosaur suits, which isn’t quite on theme but is nonetheless fun to witness. 

Arriving at the Avalanche Stage, it’s time for Scottish duo Vukovi, who eventually emerge 10 minutes later than scheduled. They make up for lost time though, arriving on stage to the sound of sirens before launching into a full-throttle, high energy set. “Get this f**king pit open, right f**king now” instructs frontwoman Janine Shilstone in her strong Scottish accent, sporting a glittery top but with camouflage cargo trousers. The outfit rightfully suggests she’s both here to party and also lead the audience into battle, as the set is a whirlwind of synth-soaked bangers and big circle pits. Janine gets the crowd up for it, flinging out free Buckfast-branded bucket hats and even doing some crowd-surfing herself at the end. For sure, one of the day’s highlights.

We then stick at the Avalanche Stage for New-York outfit Bayside, who draw a small but vocal crowd. They let the Download audience know that they’ve been going longer than the festival has, 24 years in fact. It’s crazy to think that’s the case, but the tightness of the performance is one of a band that have been doing this together for a long time. It’s a storming set, with tracks like Sick, Sick, Sick and newer cut Go To Hell standing out.

It’s at this point, our day then takes a bit of an unplanned detour, as the flaws with the Avalanche Stage become apparent. The stage itself is a large tent but also the third biggest on site, drawing some huge crowds throughout the day. Due to the layout though, during changeovers it’s a nightmare to get in and out, especially on the right side where there are huge queues for the toilets. The most shocking part is there’s only about 20-30 portaloos by the stage, not even a urinal block like they have at other points across the site. It seems an inadequate amount for the thousands that are visiting the tent and results in unnecessary long queues.

But that’s not the only issue we encounter with the Avalanche Stage. The plan was to catch Wheatus and Busted back-to-back, the latter being one of the most talked about and anticipated sets of the whole weekend. However, it seems everyone also had the same idea, as rocking up during Wheatus’ set, the tent is already overflowing, seemingly to capacity. Not only that but the area outside the tent is also rammed full of people, but with no screens or added sound amplifiers so you can see or hear what’s happening inside the tent. We try our best to work our way through the enormous crowd, but finding no space and knowing it will only get worse closer to Busted’s start time, we cut our losses and venture elsewhere. 

Of course, very disappointing to miss and I’m sure we weren’t the only ones in that situation. When Bad Omens pulled out of their Opus Stage headline set the other day, there were calls online to promote Busted to that slot due to concerns that the tent would be too small for a band of their stature, and that they should really be on one of the bigger stages. In hindsight, that would’ve been the right move – lesson learned Download!

With the Wheatus/Busted double sadly a non-starter, we instead head back to the Apex Stage for Royal Blood’s set. Coming out with a bang to ‘Out of the Black’, the set is momentarily stalled during ‘Come On Over’ in order to fix some technical issues. While they do get back up-and-running, you can tell there are still some problems on stage, with lots of gesturing by drummer Ben Thatcher and bassist Mike Kerr to their team in the wings. They eventually manage to power through, with big hitters like ‘Typhoons’, ‘Little Monster’ and ‘Figure It Out’ all engaging the crowd.

It’s then a quick venture up the hill to the Dogtooth stage for LA-based, electronic noise rock trio HEALTH, who are playing Download for the first time. Due to the Busted clash it’s a quiet tent, but those in attendance with us are treated to quite the spectacle, as the blend of heavy synths and thrashing riffs on songs like ‘CRACK METAL’, ‘PSYCHONAUT’ and ‘DSM-V’ both hypnotises and captivates.

Finally, it’s then time for the Friday Night headliner, rock titans Queens of the Stone Age. At the top of the set, frontman Josh Homme promises to “guide you (the audience) to a night you won’t f**king remember.” For the most part he does just that, but probably not the way he was intending. 

This is Queens’ first time headlining Download, with the festival and their regular punters rightfully pushing for new names at the top of the bill. However, many questioned whether they were the right fit or not and based on tonight, it seems sadly they were not. Try as Josh Homme might, everything just feels awfully flat. 

Whether it’s the crowd being tired from walking around in the mud all day, or Josh Homme’s rambling and at times awkward crowd interactions – or indeed a combination of both – the audience just doesn’t seem engaged during large chunks of the set. Whilst the performance itself is fine, with the lights and stage production actually quite outstanding, tracks like ‘Smooth Sailing’, ‘Paper Machete’ and ‘I Sat by the Ocean’ don’t ignite the Download audience. It probably doesn’t help matters when Josh Homme is introducing the latter as “a shitty song” either.

That said, the band do manage to at least finish with a flourish. ‘Make It Wit Chu’ has the crowd singing along and lots of people up on shoulders, creating an amazing visual and the highlight of the set. After that, Josh Homme warns the audience: “We are Queens of the Stone Age and here we f**king come!” The band then thunder through an emphatic closing trio of ‘You Think I Ain’t Worth a Dollar but I Feel Like a Millionaire’, ‘No One Knows’ and ‘A Song for the Dead’, with the crowd finally being brought to life. 

It’s a triumphant moment in an otherwise lukewarm set, bringing to a close a very mixed first day at Download 2024. While there were no doubt some high points, the horrendous weather and some questionable booking decisions have caused some teething problems as the festival begins its new era. That said, it’s only the first day and surely things can only get better from here – right? 

We’ll see you tomorrow to find out.

Words: Karl Blakesley
Photography via Download Festival

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