...the grown-up’s festival of choice

Festivals can be a stressful business at the best of times, what with the hunt for elusive tickets, arranging transport for yourself and several feckless associates, not to mention keeping an eye on them as they run around the site like a bunch of toddlers hopped up on Skittles.

Thrown in the ever mocking British weather and you’ve got to wonder why we subject ourselves to such dubious delights in the first place. It takes a festival like The Big Chill to remind you why.

Combining music, art, spoken word, comedy and performance across a myriad of stages, The Big Chill manages to avoid the nullifying earnestness of the similarly marketed Latitude, and provide a stimulating line-up of cultural wealth and breadth. The Arts Trail that the festival puts on every year is becoming a reason to go in itself, showcasing work by some of the finest young British artists in the country such as Gavin Turk, whilst elsewhere comedians of the calibre of Bill Bailey managed to pack out the sizeable Comedy tent as the poetry readings in the Words & Motion tent drew notable crowds. But, for those of you worrying that this was some sort of irritatingly worthy land of lo-fat soy lattes, organic copies of The Guardian and free-range toddlers, fear thee not, for The Big Chill maintained its reputation as a platform for some of the finest purveyors of musical excellence currently plying their trade.

The standard was set early on the Friday as Jim White played a set of mesmerising southern gothic Americana, dustbowl balladeering and downright glorious strangeness to a crowd who were visibly unknotted and put at ease by the type of showmanship that we simply cannot produce in these isles. We can produce our own fabulously wonky songsmiths though, and nowhere is this more evident that in the output of South London’s very own Roots Manuva. However, despite a plethora of festival friendly tunes from new album Slime & Reason, the rapper’s set managed to fall somewhat flat. The evening ended with a rare and enthralling set from Washington’s superb hip hop collective Thievery Corporation. Exhibiting the sophistication and sheer unbridled energy that has garnered them such plaudits over the years, it was the perfect beginning to a night of revelry amidst the forests of Eastnor.

With the weather holding out, by Saturday afternoon it was becoming clear why The Big Chill has managed to survive over recent years where others have failed. Watching the sun and the clouds provide a majestic lightshow for Beth Orton’s delicate acoustic set, it was evident that considered and varied musical curation had produced an event that catered for a myriad of musical tastes without ever seeming sporadic or random. This was a selection of artists who had truly earned their reputations, or were well on their way to doing so, such as Mercury Prize nominated jazz outfit Portico Quartet. Easy listening it was not, and challenging work of depth may not gain them superstar status, but repeat listening of their album Knee Deep in the North Sea should prove a rewarding experience. One pair that may have found an alternative career as a proper gigging band are The Mighty Boosh, who have played a handful of times this summer but on each occasion have proved a beguiling and entertaining act. Having realised that what festivals were missing was rapping gorillas, songs about eels and outrageous costumes in place of plimsolls and skinny jeans, they treated their huge audience to a delightfully entertaining performance.

As Saturday night rolled into Sunday morning and night turned inevitably to day, the Big Chillers were kept suitably smiley by the unparalleled abilities of the one and only Norman Jay MBE. After all, no one throws a party like this King of Carnival. Good Times? You bet your ass. And just as the day began with Jay’s road-block party tunes, so there seemed a beautiful balance by ending proceedings with the Poet Laureate of Pessimism, Leonard Cohen. As a blanket of stars unfurled above, Cohen reminded all present exactly why he is still one of the most relevant artists of the past fifty years.

So, for those of you that missed the revelries this year, my deepest condolences, but take comfort in the fact that next year’s fifteenth Big Chill Festival should prove to be the ticket of the summer. This year, one of the highlight areas of the whole event was the Sunrise field, set up after the Sunrise festival itself had been flooded out. It proved to be perhaps the most magical place at The Big Chill with live music through the night and a marvellous cast of characters beneath its numerous canvas tents. It could just be the start of a beautiful relationship with The Big Chill and if it returns next year, it will undoubtedly help to secure The Big Chill’s reputation as the festival goers’ festival of choice.

By Karl O'Keefe
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