Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre
22nd – 24th July 2016
Jodrell Bank was the setting for the very first Bluedot Festival 22nd – 24th July. Billed as a family friendly festival with a mixture of science, music, comedy, art and more, it certainly delivered.
An impressive range of headliners performed on the main stage in the shadow of the Lovell telescope including Underworld, Caribou and French electronic pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre.
Opening the Lovell stage on Friday, we get a recording of Radio 4’s excellent science quiz show, The Infinite Monkey Cage, hosted by Robin Ince and starring Brian Cox, before moving on to synth samplists Public Service Broadcasting who dazzle us for 45 minutes with space-based songs including a crowd singalong to single ‘Go’. Already a great festival band, today they’re beefed up by The Smoke Fairies horn section. Main man J Wildegooses live sampling, confuses some of the crowd. Underworld headline the first night, starting with the first 2 songs from their latest album ‘Barbara Barbara We Face a Shining Future’, ‘I Exhale’ and ‘If Rah’ are pounding slabs of electro that please the crowd. What follows is a fantastic trawl through the band’s extensive back catalogue and more cuts from their latest album. The drum and bass heavy ‘Scribble’ gets everyone dancing, there are little kids on shoulders loving it. ‘Dark Train’ is majestic, and with ‘Born Slippy’ as a finale, everyone goes home happy.
On Saturday, Jean-Michel Jarre is undoubtedly the biggest draw of the weekend and he stuns the intrigued crowd and surprises those unaware with the modernity of his more recent work and the intensity of his two drummers. His light show amazes with two giant video walls, one in front of him and one behind him. Both screens project videos of the musicians, and stunning colours stream across the packed arena. After 3 songs the front video wall opens like curtains to reveal Jarre high up, centre stage behind a huge bank of vintage synths and computers. The music runs the gauntlet of techno and synth-pop and emerges unscathed, audience euphoric. This is a man approaching his 8th decade on the globe with his finger still on the electronic pulse.
Sharing the same stage, Air continued the Franco-phile vibe of the weekend giving light to their host of dreamy, atmospheric melodies which were perfect for a sunny afternoon. Saving the best until last, they end the set with their best known songs, ‘Kelly watch the stars’ is jammed out to magnificence.
Much later on, on the Nebula stage, Circle Sky, which is Richard Norris from The Grids new band, dazzled us with some live techno that got the whole tent dancing.
12 hours later, now on Sunday, and I’m back in the same tent having been home, to see Manchester’s hotly tipped Cabbage. They are absolutely brilliant and one of the top bands of the weekend. Co-lead singer, Lee could be found at different moments anywhere, from down in the audience, all over the stage to the top of the PA stack, while the band pound out agit-pop gem after agit-pop gem. Check out their song ‘Dinner Lady’, an homage to the other singer Joe’s stint serving school meals. I asked security what they thought after the band’s health and safety nightmare of a performance, and they said “first proper band of the weekend!”
The excellent 65daysofstatic pull the biggest crowd today on the main Lovell Stage, although they’re not the headliners. They are one of the very few bands of the last few years that can be described as unique. With their hard drum and bass style drums and samples, they have a heavy guitar sound layered with keyboards and no vocals. Most of the set is from the last album with a couple of new ones from their soon to be released new album, ‘No Man’s Sky: Music For An Infinite Universe’ which go down a treat. I look forward to seeing them later in the year.
Dutch Uncles continue to surprise with their catchy tunes both old and new, lead singer, Duncan’s unique dancing makes their set for us. LA Priest wearing a silver outfit delivered a set reminiscent of 1980’s electronic bands such as Japan but with a modern twist. Beth Orton returning to her electronic roots, chatted casually with the audience punctuating songs full of ethereal vocals. Everything Everything drew a huge crowd too, to listen to their highly innovative tunes – they are anything but your average Manchester band.
Back on the Nebula stage, a true virtuoso, Longsight’s Aziz Ibrahim accompanied by tabla-player Dal, opened his set displaying his mastery of an eclectic and wide-ranging array of styles. Although hounded by sound snags throughout, he enthusiastically waded into crowd-pleasing numbers pinched from his Stone Roses days and songs from his collaborations with Ian Brown. After one of his efforts didn’t quite work out he readily admitted, “That was shit”, which he promptly – and correctly – qualified with a call for the need to experiment and accordingly fail rather than playing safe, which echoes the scientific spirit implanted in all scientific discovery.
The Membranes with a choir was just genius, adding a new dimension to the songs from last year’s ‘Dark Matter/Dark Energy’ album. Punk rock with harmonies. Magic.
Particularly breath-taking after dark, and draping the heart of The Blue Dot festival, was Brian Eno’s Lovell telescope installation. A sumptuous fruit pastel feast for the eyes to magnify the music. Projections of iridescence onto the cold steel infrastructure were a progressive colour-scape as dusk turned to darkness; the mighty telescope radiating sound and vision across the Cheshire plains like a beacon of ambience in a sultry and cloudless sky.
Tucked away from the main festival area within the ‘outer space’ area and surrounded by trees, the beguiling and bucolic Roots stage could be found. Hosting a number of emerging acts this was a place to step back, lie on the grass and contemplate life, the universe epitomised by the afternoon appearance of Hot Feet, all hinterland harmonies and earthy rhythms caught in summer eve sunlight.
The other stages showcased a diverse range of bands and artists, from unsigned experimental bands to more established acts. The indoor Orbit stage was often packed and sweaty, and there were impressive performances from the likes of Stealing Sheep who quirky and kookily offered a fun-filled hour of magnetic melodies and harmonic hooks. The crowd love them, and they over-run, they go to the monitors at the front of the stage to let off confetti cannons. By the time they turn round, most of their gear has been removed – the roadies are certainly efficient. Henge, on late on Friday were just nuts. They were like a dance version of 60s popstar Arthur Brown, loads of people on stage and funky as fuck.
Floating Points and British Sea Power played to huge crowds, Sea Power were euphoric with their powerful anthems, playing on a stage full of foliage, ‘No Lucifer’ was particularly outstanding. The end of their set was accompanied by the appearance of 2 large bears dancing in the crowd, my mate Nick manages to miss this yet again for some reason! Paddy Steer brought his absolutely bonkers yet highly innovative blend of music. Not even a wisp of the rural is found in Lonelady’s fuzzy synths and clipped guitar, treating us to the sound of the city with its cut and drive clashing with the urgency of the vocal lines. On Sunday afternoon, the tent is filled with 40,000 bees – or at least the sound of them, along with a mini-orchestra. Be One is a transcendental drone symphony and as audience members hive in and out and around the sounds follow them without the least thought of a sting in the tail. Later come Mercury Rev, melodramatically glide through old favourites like ‘Holes’ and ‘Goddess on a Highway’ along with thrilling lunges into newer material fronted by the flared-sleeved and flat-capped Jonathan Donahue with the genuine warmth of the audience’s response being reciprocated on stage: a euphoric collaboration.
The Nebula Stage was the place for unexpected highlights. There was the Isle of Wight based Plastic Mermaids beginning by showing us their vast array of influences and styles, drawing it all together by mid-set alongside the entrance of a wailing, whirling special guest singer who beamed out jaw dropping operatic vocals – a cacophonic swirl to crescendo in just over 30 minutes. As numerous onstage and instantly launching into a frenzy of screeches and yells from both singers Girl Sweat Pleasure Temple Ritual Band are a sight and sound to behold. And that’s without the pounding double drumming and heavy, heavy metal guitar and bass casting out their cataclysmic magic spell. Transfixing. The Watchmakers, are on top of their game on Saturday, played possibly their finest gig in ages, giving us pure hooky psyche-pop, and any guitar player that uses an e-bow is fine by me. Hot Vestry, hotly tipped by the likes of Tim Burgess (who did a book reading on site), played as a two-piece. When quizzed where the others were, they told me they had buried them!
The Lucid Dream, psych wizards from Carlisle, also provided a memorable set and are definitely a band to watch.
There were also stages hosting science talks, musician interviews, Steve Morris, Black Rivers and fab producers, Beyond The Wizards Sleeve. Comedy was also to be found, I caught a funny set by James Veitch, performing Dotcon, all about scamming internet scammers, he had managed to get one scammer typing in a 100 odd character code to collect some “Veitch coins” that he thought he had earned, the scammer did this 70 odd times. He’s written a book on his 3 years of scamming the scammers, it was on my shopping list before I chanced upon his set on Sunday night.
Back on the main stage, Caribou seemed to be genuinely over the moon to be playing at such a stunning location. Playing favourites from latest album ‘Our Love’ as well as including older favourites such as ‘Odessa’, they returned to do an encore with the fitting ‘Sun’.
Late at night, the Mission Control tent hosted turntable-based sets culminating on the final night with a contribution by DJ Thundermuscle (aka Steve Davis) whose spinning showed his spheres of influence not only lie on the green baize but also on the (slightly) muddied fields of Macclesfield.
There were of course some drawbacks such as without paying for a £10 programme it was difficult to know who was on where, and an unexpected change in stage times on the main stage on Sunday caught some people out. However, considering this was the first festival there was bound to be teething problems and hopefully next year will find better information and signposting for stage areas.
The line-up at Blue Dot was thoughtfully put together to ensure that there was something for everyone. Certain bands were just meant to play at such an innovative and space themed festival, Jean Michel-Jarre was a perfect headline act. People are already speculating on who could play next year with Kraftwerk being a popular choice. The festival attracted people of all ages and there was a respectfulness and friendly vibe which can often be lacking at larger festivals. There was a range of excellent real ales that made a pleasant change from pints of lager. Wine was available by the box, quite a few of my friends indulged in this, and there was even a cocktail tent selling a range of exotic and classic cocktails as well as some weird and wonderful creations.
Camping was an option and general feedback was that the campsite was well organised, quiet and hassle free; facilities were good which was reassuring, particularly for those with small children.
It could be argued that there are already too many festivals to choose from but in this case Blue Dot have demonstrated that yes, there most definitely is room for another on the circuit. By providing something completely different in such a spectacular location, Blue Dot will surely go from strength to strength.
All words and images by Phil Newall and the LTW Team inc Garret Scally, Fran Arthurs, Big Clive & Louise Caine