Okay, so there’s two wildly contradictory ideas you need to grasp about Boomtown before I go further.
THE FIRST is that Boomtown isn't a normal music festival. Sure, there’s a shitload of stages, hundreds of acts, bars, booze and beats. I’ll concede, yeah, whatever mate, it’s even in a field. There are tents and, quite possibly – whisper it – the odd cheeky baggie kicking around.
But really Boomtown is a ginormous, bonkers theatre production-slash-escape room. There’s like a thousand proper, rigorously drilled actors planted across over more than a dozen beautifully designed zones, shepherding punters though puzzles and navigating this crazy byzantine rolling plot that apparently goes back over a decade, to when Boomtown’s founding fathers thought it’d be a good wheeze to get stoners off their arses by stamp collecting around remote venues.
THE SECOND THING is that Boomtown is – weirdly, considering the above – extraordinarily… roadman. Perhaps you’re not familiar with that term. Many of the great friends I made at Boomtown (shout out, homies) didn’t know what it meant.
So let’s talk about roadmen.
A roadman is the guy (always a guy) you go to in a provincial town (not too provincial – think Guildford, or Telford, that sort of beat) when you want to buy weed. He wears brands like Adidas, or Ellesse, or both. His natural habitat is the Burger King drive-thru car park. He’s neither chav, nor townie; he’s better than them; he’s a businessman; a sharp-elbowed, bucket-hatted entrepreneur.
Anyway Boomtown is FUCKING TEEMING with roadmen. It’s like their annual general meeting. Their mustering point. On the Thursday night, as tens of thousands of roadmen surged out their tents and into the humid night, it felt like the battle of Helms Deep, if Helms Deep was sponsored by Supreme.
Imagine some great ogre rose up out of the North Sea one day, grabbed Great Britain by the corner in his great gnarled fist, and shook it until every last roadman slid downhill, into this one little corner of Hampshire. Boomtown is kind of that.
But I’m not being snobby. Roadmen are – turns out – lovely people to be around, once you tune out the non-stop bantz and dated Human Traffic references. A rather lovely member of our little crew, indeed, remarked on day three: "nobody’s pinched my arse yet – this is great."
I can't stress enough, before we get to the music, how much the theatrical element is a marvel to behold. An extraordinarily detailed endeavour – like, there’s a dude standing around in ‘Old Town’ wearing a tricorn hat with a sign saying ‘free shrugs’. That's his thing. You talk to him, and he points you to clues. There’s a working barber shop flogging ‘five-minute mullets’. A whole aerial thing going on with ropes and burlap sacks, that I never quite figured out but I'm sure some nerd did.
At around 3am I encountered an actress at one of the countless little hole-in-the-wall venues, in character as some species of android doctor, doling out dubious medical advice. At one club I caught a dayglo madman in a plastic periwig holding an angle grinder up to his cock, until sparks literally flew. Insane. There’s an app, starring a girlish AI character called AMI who tells you what to do, and is (I think) a satire on modern data collection algorithms.
And it’s all connected to this phenomenally involved plot – the intricate invisible clockwork that underpins Boomtown and moulds its sprawling mythology.
Anywho, onto the tunes.
The line-up had a distinctly reggae bent – Gentleman's Dub Club were the first proper act on, and had tens of thousands of bumbagged madlads skanking like no tomorrow at the stupendously attractive Lions Den amphitheatre. Your dad’s favourite band UB40 were there too, inexplicably, and fit like a glove. Neville Staple, him off The Specials utterly, utterly smashed it mid-afternoon at the Town Centre stage, just before Goldie Lookin' Chain. Yep, they’re still a thing.
Area 404 is an all-new area, apparently; dystopian, rust-hued and crammed full of batshit mental little venues playing intense break-core and hammering geometric techno. If you happen to be – how can I put it – in the right frame of mind for that kind of caper, you could easily parr off the main zones and spend all night in Area 404. I know I did.
Anyway, my favourite act all weekend was The Streets. Man alive, Mike Skinner has still got it. Up on the Lion’s Den stage, probably a bit chunkier than you remember, but still able to snatch a giant crowd by the short and curies with bare white hot wit and boyish charm. “Tomorrow, when Lauryn Hill’s on,” he said “I want one of you lot to climb up onstage and get in the waterfall.”
“And when that happens, when somebody actually does it, at Lauryn Hill tomorrow night, I want you to remember me.”
See what I mean? He’s basically the poet laureate of roadmen. Their balding spirit animal.
Oh, did I mention there was a waterfall onstage? Well, actually there was two. And having goaded his fans into sabotaging Lauryn Hill (“fair warning – she can get a bit funny”) he proceeded to scramble onto the waterfall himself, leaping off the top of a giant wobbly speaker stack, to the apparent consternation of helpless security staff in the pit.
That’s Boomtown all over – why it's great, and why I love it.
A ravishing spectacle of stagecraft, willed into existence by an army of master craftsmen; every nifty little detail dovetailing ingeniously into every other inspired facet… and all just so some mouthy prick from Barnet can prance around acting the goat.
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Words: Andy Hill