Matterley Bowl Estate, Winchester
Thu 7th – Sun 10th Aug
This year marked the sixth for Boomtown festival, the festival notorious not only for it’s community feel but also for the non-commercialised music on offer, all plucked from a diverse range of genres largely centred around what can loosely be described as “roots music”. Louder Than War sent Lars Donohoe along this year, check out his review below.
As the whisper of Boomtown’s magic sweeps epidemically across increasingly mainstream corners of the country, and concerning rumors of a corporate takeover haunt the expectations of old-timers, the existence of some anxiety surrounding the festival this year is perhaps unsurprising. It’s the age old and inevitable dilemma of the commercial music festival: how can such an event maintain its integrity while operating as a successful business? However, save for a slight overcrowding due to the selling of an extra few thousand tickets, and a frankly ridiculous alcohol limit on entrance in the interests of bar profit, the anticipated greed of new found popularity seems, for this year at least, to be mysteriously absent. As it transpires, the rumors of a Festival Republic takeover and acceptance of large-scale planning permission to build the next Glastonbury are total bollocks, and for now the color and carnivalesque abandon of the authentic Boomtown spirit is holding its ground well against growth.
Boomtown is an elaborately decorated music and arts festival in Matterley Estate, Winchester, and like all the best festivals, it’s developed as an utterly unique microcosm of culture. Themed as a fictional frontier town, the grounds are filled with wacky caricatures of urban institutions ranging from a mock town hall, job centre, and leisure centre, to a gentleman’s club, bandstand and wild west saloon. While Glastonbury’s set designers have claimed that ‘as with a lot of the stuff we do, it starts with a genre of music, and then an environment, a set, is built around that’, at Boomtown the reverse often appears to be the case, with pipe organ music accompanying the fairground, top-hatted mock-aristocrats cavorting to electro-swing in the deluxe avenues of Mayfair, and bearded gypsy band’s roaring sea shanties aboard shipwrecked pirate vessel The Jolly Dodger. Fictional narratives usually accompany this visual and musical fusion, touching on escapist themes such as civil rebellion, post-apocalypse and science fiction. This is a parallel universe in which attendees are invited to shed their skins and become part of an absurd carnival of imagination, excess and sheer fun.
The line-up this year continues Boomtown’s trajectory towards an ever-more diversifying jumble of musics. In theme with the last few years, the traditional sovereignty of roots reggae, dub and ska is challenged both by the legions of wonderfully eccentric gypsy, swing and balkan bands, and by the countless rave soundsystems, which transport attendees through a helter-skelter ride through the history of electronic music (everything from house, techno, and disco to drum and bass, jungle and breakbeat; gabba, garage and bassline to IDM, glitch and triphop). However, this year the organisers have plunged their syrupy fingers into an even wider selection of pies: new folk and world stage The Old Mines plays host to such exotic acts as Tinariwen and London Afrobeat Collective, while deadpan post-punk rockers New Model Army bring a corner of somber political angst to the table not heard in previous years.
(Photo right © Luke Taylor) The headliners this year are a mixed bag. On one hand, The Cat Empire’s Sunday set is truly inspired (a sleek and well-crafted mash-up of classics, balancing an enveloping, warmly inclusive liveness with arresting showmanship and virtuosity), and The Wailers, well-scheduled with a midday set, also impress (despite clinging onto a dubious ‘legendary’ status made slightly unconvincing by a shortage of original members, the Marley songbook is, in my opinion, given a vibrant and vivid resurrection miles more inspiring than the seemingly never-ending torrent of other more prosaic Bob covers I’ve heard here over the last few years). On the other hand, however, groans of disappointment follow several of the other more anticipated sets of the weekend. Shaggy’s set, I hear from almost everyone who attended, is talentless, trite and embarrassing. Having depleted his meager repertoire of jaded hits in record time, the long-forgotten dancehall sloganeer apparently stepped aside to let his DJ take over with a tedious mash-up of (even more) Bob Marley hits. Ageing punk jesters NoFX also sound well past their best, only occasionally mustering up the energy to do one of their once high-octane skate punk flashbacks justice. More upsetting, however, was Fat Mike’s racist cab-driver banter, which over the course of the gig involved jeering at jews, negroes, native americans and pakistanis. Ok, so anyone who knows anything about NoFX knows not to take anything they say seriously, but come on, that sort of shit just isn’t cool.
However, as I pointed out in last year’s review for Mudkiss, one of the great things about Boomtown is its lack of reliance on ‘monolithic headline acts’, and the consistent level of quality, fun music throughout the day minimizes the damage caused by one or two disappointing headliners—not something that could be said of many other festivals. Two stages in particular stood out this year: Lion’s Den, towering like the Mayan ruins of a film set, provided an upbeat and animating array of reggae artists old and new including Jimmy Cliff, The Skints, Macka B, Mungo’s Hi-Fi and Sister Nancy, while Glastonbury’s scrap-metal spaceship Arcadia (despite some unfortunate limits in volume due to licensing issues) provided the tumbling beats, bleeps and bass of several awesome DJ’s, with Aphrodite, Slamboree Soundsystem, Audio, Black Sun Empire and Vandal all making appearances. Even without this all-star lineup, however, the imagination of the visual designers, attention to detail woven into every aspect of the event, and the almost unparalleled positive, fun-loving attitude of the townspeople would make for a weekend of sensory bliss, primal recklessness and fiercely intense experience. Not for the faint hearted, Boomtown remains majestic and unparalleled in the UK festival milieu, despite falling slightly behind the gigantic heights of previous years.
All words by Lars Donohoe.