The first week of September now marks Bristol’s latest festival endeavour, the fresh-faced Forwards Festival – with 2023 marking only its second year of existence. Armed with a stellar line-up, consisting of everyone from legends to Mercury-nominated newcomers, Forwards delivers a genreless experience to Bristol’s Downs across two jam-packed days. Talks and panels give a refreshing, and educational, breather from the relentless music schedule, and the small nature of the site provides a surprisingly intimate and welcoming experience.
Friday boasted the legendary Erykah Badu as headliner, the R&B queen making her maiden voyage to Bristol. A slow-burning introduction from her band was a masterclass in performance and improvisation. That said, it created a restlessness, perhaps bored at points, atmosphere within the crowd. It took half an hour before Badu took to the stage, shaving her headline set down to just under an hour. Despite her lack of punctuality, Badu affirmed her legendary status, delivering a performance of the highest calibre.
The day was predominantly chilled: starlet Olivia Dean blew the clouds away with her delightfully refreshing dose of pop-infused R&B, cementing her place as one of the most exciting newcomers in recent times. Biig Piig’s relaxed brand of dancey alt-pop was stellar; despite probably being more suited to a dark, dynamic club environment her and her band truly grabbed their set by the horns. Recent cover stars Gabriels are an act that are intended to be witnessed live: colourful, soulful, performing a watertight set oozing slickness, charisma and sheer joy. However, Friday’s highlight was Australia’s Confidence Man, their signature house-meets-Eurodance closing out the East Stage, with the audience bouncing just as much as the band themselves. Ridiculously catchy cuts like ‘Toy Boy’ and ‘What I Like’ were highlights, the frequent outfit changes the perfect slice of theatrics, whether it be the David Byrne-esque suits or the Berlin techno-adjacent mesh tops.
Saturday was a little higher output: electronic and IDM legend Aphex Twin headlined the festival’s closing night; a set Bristol has been gearing up for since his last trip to the city in 2006. A set from Richard D James is nothing short of spectacular – an hour and a half of non-stop music from one of the most revered pioneers of all time. Crashing through drum and bass to dubstep to even a few gabber moments, Aphex Twin’s set was beautifully unrelenting, the harsh yet intricate walls of sound matched brilliantly by mesmerising, mind-altering visuals.
Indie-dance icons Primal Scream pulled out all the stops, a hit-filled set spanning their near four-decade career, following a raucous and nonstop performance from Aussie punks Amyl and the Sniffers. The critically acclaimed Arlo Parks mesmerised over on the East Stage, her effortless set taking the crowd through a sunrise. A healthy balance of new and old material, Parks’ stage presence is undeniable, injecting a level of energy into her (on the record) often very laidback music. London experimental duo Jockstrap continued to affirm their acclaimed status. The duo delivered a razor-sharp set, alternate versions of tracks refreshing, and exciting, chaotic and frantic sample chops and sub-basses gifted with ease by producer extraordinaire Taylor Skye – the shapeshifting energy of their tracks brought to even more fruition by the enigmatic stage demeanour of vocalist Georgia Ellery.
Saturday also boasted performances from local heroes. The magical Katy J Pearson received the warmest of welcomes home, her beautiful brand of indie-folk a stellar way to spend the mid-afternoon. Scalping (now called SCALER, seemingly) delivered a monstrous set of their signature ‘heavy metal in 4D’, replacing Viagra Boys on the mainstage after the Swedish sextet dropped out a few days prior. Post-punk starlets Saloon Dion crashed onto the Information Stage with unstoppable force, their infectious energy and witty tracks received wonderfully by a packed crowd – despite the clash with Primal Scream.
Despite only being in its second year, Forwards Festival is a solid addition to the Bristol events circuit, the small nature of the site giving for a surprisingly intimate festival experience, no matter where one watches in the crowd. Though the line-up may be too eclectic for the average festival goer, fine tunings to the scheduling in future years may well solidify Forwards as one of the most worthwhile new festivals in the UK.
Words: James Mellen
Photography: Cloe Morrison