David Edwards and Melanie Smith take the short road to Bluedot Festival and discover a festival with ideas, energy, individuality. And above all – truly magnificent music. Coverage of the Thursday and Friday here…
In an era of homogenised and identikit festivals, Bluedot Festival has truly carved out a unique and special identity in only a few years. Located around the stunning and iconic Lovell Space Telescope, in only its fourth year it has become synonymous with a combination of science exhibitions, progressive and innovative acts, as well as talks with some of the finest minds around and truly remarkable headline acts. And despite the attempts of the wind and the rain to dampen enthusiasm, this year’s event was a stunning triumph from the old to the new, with a family-friendly and multi-faceted crowd who brought their own party to Cheshire for the weekend.
For the early entrants, the Halle Orchestra’s “Blast Off!” spectacular provided a truly profound and wonderful experience on the main Lovell Stage. As the sun beat down on us (the intervals of rain having cleared away just in time), Manchester’s acclaimed orchestra settled into their seats and instantly sparked up the unmistakable and iconic sounds of John Williams’ 1977 Star Wars main theme. On a weekend where we celebrated 50 years since the remarkable achievement of man landing on the moon for the first time, we then proceed to sit mesmerised though a selection of some of the classic themes and scores that have underpinned the finest science fiction films and television series of all time. From ET: The Extra Terrestrial to Thunderbirds and to Dr Who, it is a glorious realisation of how classical music has infiltrated our minds and provided us with decades of wonder in ways that we could never possibly countenance, but to have this here on one stage leaves us truly in awe. A magnificent way to get things going.
We awake ready and inspired for a walk through the festival – now fully awake and alive. For those who haven’t been to Bluedot, it could be considered both a music and a science festival in one. Demonstrations of scientific experiments and high-energy performances are there to entrance children and adults alike – most impressively in the Star Field where children get the opportunity to touch moonrocks and to learn about meteorites at the New Scientist Space Experience. Everywhere you go there are talks going on with prominent scientists and experts – where even if you just pop in for ten minutes, you are left staggered at the wonder and breadth of their knowledge and expertise. One such talk takes place in the Mission Control tent where Anna Scaife from The University of Manchester talks about how Jodrell bank was central in detecting microwave emissions giving us clues to the origin and construction of the universe. Even more mindblowing is Helen Sharman’s talk at the same stage later on. The first British astronaut into space and the first woman to visit the MIR Space Station. Her words are those of someone who has seen beyond our eyes and into a world where we can only imagine. As she talks about her experiences and the hopes for space exploration into further parts of the world, you can feel the hair standing up on the back of your neck and tears coming to your eyes. Simply incredible.
Music-wise, we kick things off at the Lovell Stage for Self Esteem. Rachel Taylor from Slow Club’s side project is anything of the sort – a towering, kaleidoscopic and Afrobeat-inflicted series of pop songs that sounds remarkably assured in its ability to blend polyrhythms and electronica into the confines of a pop song. At times there are traces of Talking Heads, at others there are touches of Mew and Janelle Monae. It’s an intoxicating and brave blend of music that suggests that Taylor may have serious choices to make between her parent band and Self Esteem. On the evidence of today, my money is on the latter.
The transformation of Beth Jeans Houghton from a psychedelic folk outfit to a scarred/scared, gritty and ragged lo-fi punk outfit has been a stark one, but in her Du Blonde alias she is magnificent. The songs are self-eviscerating in their honesty and frankness, with lyric after lyric sizzling with bile and regret. She remains however a captivating stage presence and her between-song chat with both audience and bandmembers is sweet, funny and charmingly self-deprecating. By the time we reach the finale with a storming and stamping ‘Black Flag’ she seems triumphant and happy – something we are all glad for given how bleak and dark recent record ‘Lung Bread for Daddy’ was.
This afternoon is genuinely all about the girls as Les Amazones d’Afrique give the most stunning performance on the main stage. Clad in multiple colours, with headwear and flowing skirts all over the place, they give a masterclass in African rhythms and melodic energy from the first moment to the last – never dropping the energy level. There are welcome and encompassing calls for feminism, gender equality and love to all in the audience and the whole thing is a reminder that despite all the hate portrayed in the media every day, there is still so much love and power present in acts like this. Inspirational.
After an impromptu stop to drink vodka cocktails and escape the rain at the Russian Standard vodka bar (the precipitation is literally gushing down the side of the tent; we just glug it back and giggle) the skies part and we are suddenly at the front for Ibibio Sound Machine who give us Tony Allen beats, loping and twangy bass and consistent and excellent barrages of taut, funky nuggets of pure dance perfection. The ground is muddy but we don’t care less as we twist and turn to every one of their terrific and festival-made tunes.
Leifur James at the Orbit Stage is a genuine surprise. Not being aware of his work, we are taken aback by the maturity and intelligence of his gospel and soul infused electronica. With sparse beats and only sporadic vocal interjections, it almost comes across as a Motown record remixed by Jamie Xx though the way that he uses layers and stabs of synth to colour his tracks is genuinely all his own. A truly excellent talent, and one to watch closely.
And so it is time for our first headliner – 21st Century Dance-Pop royalty Hot Chip. From being a tiny low-stage act to headliners has seemed long in the making but as they approach their 20th anniversary, they seem stronger and better than ever with their new record ‘A Bath Full of Ecstasy’ being their strongest in years. Tonight, they slay all that is in front of them. The songs from the new record sound incredible and are greeted with immediate joy and reverence, specifically a fantastic ‘Hungry Child’ and a glorious ‘Melody of Love’. They are so confident that they can bring out their signature and breakthrough track ‘Over and Over’ only four songs in and not a single person leaves. ‘And I Was A Boy From School’ shivers with intelligence and fractured introspection and ‘Ready for the Floor’ sounds as utterly breath-taking as it was when first revealed. They even unleash their barnstorming cover of Beastie Boys ‘Sabotage’ again to a baffled, yet delighted audience and the vocoder-heavy stomp of ‘I Feel Better’ takes us home. Genuinely, this is one of the most consistent and innovative dance acts of the century and to see them finally taking the thunderous applause they deserve is an absolute joy to behold.
It isn’t quite over yet as we head across to he Orbit Stage for Jon Hopkins. The tent is utterly rammed and it takes us a while to make our way through, but when we do we are treated to a sublime show of beauty, grace and delicacy. Hopkins is a master at using classical ideas and themes to marry to dizzying beats and slices of homunculus-teasing layers of emotive sound, whilst laser lights flicker and dance around us – piercing our eyes and our souls. It’s been a long and busy day, but there is something simultaneously soothing and energising about the beautiful creations that this man is able to pull from his mind and into our hearts.
Photos: Du Blonde, Self Esteem, Ren Harvieu, Grace Lightman, Kate Tempest, Ibibio Sound Machine, Hot CHip, night time paarade and installations.
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More information on the Bluedot Festival 2020 and early bird tickets can be found here:
Words by David Edwards, you can read more of David’s writing for Louder Than War in his archive
Photos by Melanie Smith. More work by Mel on Louder Than War can be found at her author’s archive. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter. Photography portfolio can be found here
Photo of Halle Orchestra provided by Carousel PR.