Boomtown Fair – live review

Boomtown Fair
Matterley Bowl, Winchester
9 – 12 August 2012

Get your eyes around this massive review of Boomtown Fair by Natalie Dzerins – packed full of recommendations for the best ska, punk, dub, reggae and psychobilly bands she caught over the weekend. 

Boomtown Fair returned for its fourth year between August 9th-12th at the Matterley Bowl near Winchester. The grassroots music and arts festival combines acts over ten main stages and at least thirteen smaller stages with installation art, wandering performers, cabaret acts, circus shows, and much much more. Around 13,000 people descended for it last weekend, and I was one of them.

One of the things that really distinguishes Boomtown is that the whole site is set up to actually look like a town, complete with back story and neighbourhoods. Each neighbourhood has its own ‘history’ and scene. Elaborate building and street facades run around the site, covering the entrances to stages and other attractions.

There’s four neighbourhoods in the main town; firstly there’s Downtown, which has a run-down, dystopian, B-Movies vibe to it. Next is Mayfair Avenue, the ‘salubrious’ part of Boomtown, then Old Town, which is the historic quarter, and finally, the Town Centre which hosts the civic buildings.

Boomtown Fair – live review

It’s an interesting and unique way to organise a site, making it easy to navigate and fun to explore, and cordoning off smaller stages so they don’t all get muddled into one. It also creates a really nice atmosphere, and gives the whole place some character which is usually sorely missing from music festivals.

The main centre is surrounded by camping areas, and then behind these was Hold It Down Town, a chillout village full of workshops, masseuses and holistic therapists. Finally there was Kidz Town, an area full of activities and games for children who were attending the festival (featuring an awesome wooden playground that I was extremely jealous of).

As I mentioned above, there were ten main stages at Boomtown, each with their own loose genres and unique styles. The biggest of these was the Town Centre stage, which mainly hosted reggae and ska bands, and where the biggest headliners played. This was one of the only open air stages, situated in the middle of the site.

Nearer the outskirts was the Bassline Circus marquee, which did pretty much exactly what it said on the tin. There was also the Devils Kicks Dancefloor, with the facade of a B-Movie cinema, mainly showing punk and rockabilly/psychobilly bands. This was one of my favourite stages, but did also contain one of the only flaws of the festival – I only actually saw two female band members on stage the entire four days (there might have been a couple more), and every night the promoter would send out troupes of nearly-naked female dancers on stage to writhe around the (all-male) band members. It didn’t ruin my weekend or anything, but the clear message of ‘men = make and listen to music, women = decoration for our amusement’ did leave a sour taste in mine and my friends’ mouths. It seemed very much in keeping with the rockabilly scene’s strict notions of gender roles, which is one reason I don’t like rockabilly. But this is a review, not a polemic on the objectification of women in certain alternative scenes, so I’ll get back on topic”¦

Lion’s Den stage was the second largest and was home to reggae, roots and dub music. The Old Town Theatre showcased gypsy, balkan and ska music, and was also home to the Invisible Circus show, so was situated in a Big Top. I can’t describe the look of the Arcadia stage here, as it gets its own special section below, but it was”¦ incredible. This was where the bass and rave DJs played.

Boomtown Fair – live review

The Boombox stage was designed to look like a giant ghetto blaster and was the only other fully outdoor stage. This didn’t just host DJs and beatboxers, they had twice daily dance-offs too. The Bodyshop stage was quite small, with the facade of an old garage, but with macabre surgical displays inside (Bodyshop”¦ body”¦ shop”¦ get it?). This played host to hardcore, jungle, techno, rave and beatbox music.

Visually, my favourite stage was dub/reggae tent The Hidden Woods, as it was literally a stage that was in a clearing in the middle of a wood. It reminded me of some great free parties I’ve been to and had some awesome bands playing.

Finally, there was the Hanging Gardens stage, which held ska, folk and ‘other’ bands. It was quite a nice little stage, but I felt that, in Hold It Down Town, it was placed way too far away from other stages – a 15 minute walk up a steep hill. With there being so many stages it often felt like it wasn’t worth the half-hour round trip just to check a band out, even though there were a few I would have liked to have seen.

Boomtown Fair – live review

After we arrived on Thursday and had set up camp, we went off to explore the site. We landed at Devils Kicks Dancefloor in time for two of the last bands of the night. Faintest Idea are a technically competent but derivative ska band from Kings Lynn, who are worth a listen if you’re into that sort of thing. Smokey Bastard, in contrast, were a really interesting band. The Reading-based seven piece played Irish-folk-punk while managing to not sound anything like Dropkick Murphys or Flogging Molly, which is quite an achievement.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to try fit in as many bands as possible, although the only way we could have caught everything we wanted would have been with the aid of a Delorean and a flux capacitor. As we got lunch we wandered towards the Town Centre stage and caught the last part of Social Ignition‘s set. They’d earned their place at Boomtown through a qualifier competition, and it was well-deserved. Their light ska punk sound was a nice way to start the day and set the mood well.

After them came Bison, who are a roots-y/two-tone nine piece band who managed to get me dancing before I’d even finished my first cup of tea of the day, which is no mean feat. They’re a fun, irreverent band and a good laugh to listen to.

We then headed over to the Old Town Theatre to check out Hallouminati. They’d taken the novel approach of sending their brass section outside the marquee to draw people in before the band proper started, which was a trick that served them well. I’ll hold my hands up, I did only go to see them because I couldn’t stop laughing at their name, but really enjoyed their hippie-ish gypsy ska sound.

After that we ended up going on a little wander and got drawn towards the Hidden Woods stage to watch six-piece old-meets-new school dub reggae band General Roots. When they’d finished we made our way up to Hanging Gardens to watch 25 Past The Skank, a hyperactive riot dub collective from Nottingham, and liked them so much we bought the CD. It’s a shame they were on this stage, because as I mentioned before, it’s just too far out of the way for people to bother with. I think we were the only people there watching them that they didn’t know, but they put on a hell of a show.

We returned back to the town to catch Dub Pistols. Their music was a really great dubby two-tone affair, but the vocals let them down a lot – their two vocalists basically just ran around on stage sounding like each was the other’s hype man.

We left their set about half-way through to see Milton Keynes group Anti Vigilante bring their East-Coast-hardcore-with-brass stylings to the festival. They’re one of my favourite bands who are always a safe bet for a good time, and this set was no exception.

Next stop was the Lions Den stage to watch Bush Chemists, who take Wayne Jennings’ eighties electro-reggae back a step with an authentic dancehall twist. We unfortunately missed The Skints, one of the most up-and-coming bands on the UK reggae circuit and Balkan Beatbox, an electronic/Balkan band from New York, but did manage to catch Blak Twang for some dirty reggae which mixed in hip-hop and politicised lyrics.

Finally on Friday, we returned to the Dirty Kicks Dancehall to watch The Peacocks, who are a Swiss rockabilly band but without the pretentiousness or superficiality of other bands of that genre. After that I went to my tent to pick something up and was so exhausted from all the bands we’d seen I accidentally fell asleep.

Boomtown Fair – live review

Sadly, this meant I missed Coda, a five-piece bassline band, The Smerins Anti-Social Club, who mix ’30s swing with funk and d’n’b, and Shy FX, a pioneer of jungle and drum and bass.

Thankfully, however, it also meant that I missed Reel Big Fish trying to ruin music for everyone.

Saturday was a much more chilled out day, we decided to spend the day exploring the site as well as trying to cram as much music in our earholes as we possibly could. We began the day in the Hidden Woods, watching Black Star Dub Collective, a group from Manchester who mix dirty dub with poignant and skilful vocals about the state of the UK and the rest of the world today.

The next band we caught were La La & The Boo Ya, a brother/sister duo from Bradford who use mix soulful songs over dubstep beats to create a big sound. Immediately after the LL&TBY set (in fact, setting up during their set) were Dub Mafia, a high-energy, female-fronted, enjoyable dubstep fusion seven-piece from Bristol.

After that we went to watch the daily Theatre Macabre show, which is mentioned below, but was a hugely impressive show which involved fire-eaters, aerial ninjas, alien dancers, grotesque striptease, an eight year old MC and would have involved a lot more if the power hadn’t sadly gone out. We next went to the Town Centre stage to watch their headliners, Asian Dub Foundation.

ADF did what they do best, combining bhangra beats with punk and ska (more so since the introduction of former King Prawn vocalist Al Rumjen).

We left their set to catch stalwarts of the UK punk scene, Random Hand. If you’ve never heard them before, I really, really recommend checking them out. They put angry, political lyrics to a ska-metal soundtrack and result in a sound you can’t help but to bounce along to.

Beenie Man was supposed to headline the Lions Den stage on Saturday night but pulled out of all his UK tour dates the night before. No reason was given, but as this has happened in the past due to him being a massive homophobe, I’m going to go ahead and say it wasn’t a massive loss. After Random Hand, we finally got to see the Arcadia Show (reviewed below) and went to bed with our tiny little minds falling out of our ears.

I woke up hopping with excitement on Sunday as the opening act on the Town Centre stage was none other than ska pioneers The Skatalites. Founded in Jamaica in 1963, The Skatalites were probably directly responsible for the sound of at least half the bands who played at Boomtown, and I was so not disappointed.

It was a brilliant set, made even more so by the fact that despite the founding member being nearly as old as my nana, they were all dancing about and clearly enjoying themselves. Their set was mostly instrumental, but they brought out vocalist Doreen Shaffer out to sing a few songs, including My Boy Lollipop. I can’t really express how much I enjoyed it, but even writing about them now I have a massive cheesy grin on my face.

Boomtown Fair – live review

After The Skatalites we watched The Slackers, a New York ska/reggae band. This was another massively enjoyable set, which required chilled-out dancing in the sunshine and a few beers. The chilled-out vibe of the first two bands was in stark contrast to frenetic ska-punk combo Capdown who played afterwards.

Technically no longer together, Capdown played all their best songs from their recording days and had everyone who watched them dancing along like mad bastards.

After a couple of hours of recovery, we went along to Devil’s Kicks Dancefloor to watch Tyrannosaurus Alan, who play shouty, sing-along ska/hip-hop. Musically, they’re quite similar to Random Hand, and they’re a very easy band to enjoy and get in to, but unfortunately suffered a power cut after only about three songs. They compensated for this by continuing to play the brass section acoustically and even managed to get the tent dancing to their drummer’s version of We Will Rock You. The power returned after a short time and they were able to continue their set, but we had to leave to check out Boomtown’s super-secret headlining act.

Rumours had been flying around all weekend (some more plausible than most, and many people had clearly just been hoping that it would be their personal favourite band), and it was none other than ska-reggae legend Jimmy Cliff.

As expected, he was amazing – I mean, only some kind of monster could listen to You Can Get It If You Really Want and Wonderful World, Beautiful People without cracking a smile and wiggling their hips. He also played some new songs which were just as infectiously happy and unremittingly positive, even when they were about dark subjects.

For our last show of the festival, we caught The Filaments, a former Essex street-punk band who verge on rock and roll with brass. They played using Tyrannosaurus Alan’s brass section. This didn’t work brilliantly but was quite cool, and it’s probably a good job they were the last band we saw as I’m pretty sure I pulled a few muscles flinging myself about to their new material and classics such as Bastard Coppers.

As well as all the big tents holding live bands, there were at least thirteen (that I could count) smaller stages at Boomtown, mostly populated by DJs and the odd MC. They all had their unique spin and theme, as shown by the building facades in front of the tents and their name.

The largest of them, however, wasn’t like this; the Wandering Word stage was another stage in a wood and host to folk musicians, spoken word artists, poetry and hip-hop. In the town itself there was the ASBO roller disco, Charlie Brown’s Casino, The Old School Garage, the Ca-rave-an, Electro Swing Bar, Bling Bar, Park Hotel, Madame Electrifies Discotheque, The People’s Front Room, The Gramophone Disco, and the Prohibition Den. Finally, in Hold It Down Town there was the Waveform Psychedelic Dancing Dragon Stage.

These were all nice little spaces to go to if you didn’t want to see a full band, or if the bands had all finished but you still fancied a bit of a dance, since most of them were open until very late at night. As mentioned above, the ‘town’ layout lent itself really well to keeping them close to, but separate from, the main action, and the facades and decoration were great at giving each one a different feel.

Even if you didn’t see a single band or DJ at Boomtown, there was still more than enough to keep you occupied for the entire time. There was the Nutty Games area, which had sports day races, water slides and life-sized snakes and ladders.

Then there was also a retro amusements arcade, vintage fairground, beauty parlours, a shisha lounge, the Lost Horizon sauna, five cinemas, the Healing Place (massage and holistic therapists area), the Floating Lotus chillout spot, three full days of workshops (from cider-making to circus skills to making all sorts of clothes and accessories to baby-raving(!)).

These were all slightly outside the main ‘town’, away from the stages, but inside there was also the Boomtown Bank, which offered fun and nonsense games – and an Occupy movement and the Leisure Centre, where you could partake in ‘rave-aerobics’ and extreme party games. There wasn’t a second during the whole weekend to be bored.

If you didn’t fancy any of the hangouts mentioned in the previous paragraph, there were still plenty of other things to see during Boomtown. Wandering performers roamed the site, with acts such as Rimski, on a bicycle piano, Dubtendo, who mix up Mario characters brought to life with a dubstep soundtrack, the Police Rave Unit, and the Jailhouse Rock moving stage.

Testament to Boomtown’s free-spirited vibe, there were some event-goers who’d decided to join in with the fun. We saw loads of groups of people who weren’t mentioned in the programme but were dressed up and performing. Most notable of these were the group of bronze-painted steampunk people we saw wandering around, including two people who were using stilts on all fours. It was (like the rest of the performers) certainly a sight to behold.

There were also static performances at certain places in the site – Victorian funeral services at the Church of the Sturdy Virgin, spectacular aerial circus performers at the Theatre Macabre, as well as the Hoochie Coochie vaudeville cabaret acts, and even more circus performances at the daily Invisible Circus show in the Old Town Theatre stage.

Boomtown Fair – live review

As well as human performers, there were stunning bits of art scattered around the site. Flanking the Town Centre stage were two enormous steel tulips, which transformed into gas lights and pyrotechnic displays come nightfall. Similar lanterns circled the Arcadia stage and were used to great effect.

There were also murals, static sculptures, totem poles and pond sculptures. I thought my favourite piece was a mechanical dragon made from steel which flapped its wings and breathed smoke, but as I was watching that in action, I was both terrified and transfixed by a huge walking mechanoid which was half cyberpunk dog, half motorbike, and spat out huge plumes of fire as it trampled along. It’s certainly a hell of a way to clear your way through a crowd, and technologically massively impressive.

However, nothing could possibly top the flagship Arcadia show.

The Arcadia stage is a 70ft tall behemoth metal tripod designed to look like a giant alien insect waiting to devour the site. Hanging from the middle is a perspex DJ booth, suspended about 50ft above the crowd. We were told to expect a spectacular show at midnight every night and were definitely not disappointed.

We arrived ten minutes before to find around 5000 people were staring at the stage with anticipation, and suddenly a gigantic ball of flame shot out from the other side of the festival site behind us. After this, three smaller arms rose from the middle of the stage, each carrying an aerial acrobat.

I can’t really describe the details of what went on, because I was too busy staring slack-jawed in amazement, but basically the three aerial acrobats did performances, then were lowered down to pick up extra acrobats from the floor then did tandem performances, and all the while there was huge plumes of flame coming from the top of the stage (I was about 80ft away and swear my eyebrows got singed), lasers, and some really heavy music. I can only echo the sentiment of the bloke standing behind me when it finished: “Well”¦ that’s my fucking mind blown”.

On to the actual ins and outs of how comfortable a festival it was, which is really important when deciding whether to attend – Boomtown struck me as being brilliantly organised. The real aim of event organisation on this scale is to get people to forget they’ve spent four days living in a field in the middle of nowhere, by removing the hardships that would usually be associated with it.

The organisers pulled this off really well, there were plenty of toilets which (for festival standards) were in pretty good condition (plus premium compost toilets you could pay to use in exchange for shorter queues and not sealing yourself inside a plastic porta-loo), plenty of standpipes for drinking water, lockers, showers, phone-charging points, a ‘corner shop’ for camping and food essentials, ATMs and adequate campsite lighting. These don’t seem like massive things in themselves, but if just one of them were missing you’d really notice it.

It was also a really clean festival, with cash rewards being offered to people who collected litter, and plenty of frequently emptied bins and recycling bins. There was also an ‘Eco-Bond’ scheme, where every ticketholder was charged a £5 deposit when buying their ticket and given a plastic bag upon entry to the festival. When they had filled the bag with litter or recycling and taken it to a drop-off point, they got their £5 back. It’s a small and simple scheme, but really seemed to make a lot of difference.

It’s always a gamble to eat at festivals, and much more so if you’re a vegan like me. However, Boomtown offered an amazing selection of foods, with more than I could possibly hope to taste in the time I was there. Special mention goes to the Wide Awake Cafe, who offer vegan/vegetarian food which is freshly cooked on site, with generous portions of curry and chili, among other options, and to Goodness Gracious Healthy Foods, a vegan company who made some of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted, and home-cooked vegan cakes.

For the non-vegans, there was a huge range of foods, from the usual burger stalls to ones offering French, Mexican, Caribbean, Italian, English, and Welsh fare, along with rotisserie stalls, a specialist crumpet company and ostrich burger vendors. All food seemed fairly reasonably priced – we were able to eat for about £5/£6 per meal.

Boomtown Fair – live review

Although Boomtown allows personal alcohol to be brought on site (with some limits – no glass bottles, nothing more than ‘reasonable for personal consumption’), there were also a number of different bars. Most were generic, offering lager, cider, wine or spirits, but a couple stood out: The Bad Apple Bar, next to the Town Centre stage was the largest bar on site and offered up to 15 different ‘real’ ciders.

Not being a massive cider aficionado, the greatness was somewhat lost on me, but my partner had a grand time sampling all he could (and bravely finished my ‘Janet’s Jungle Juice’ cider after I took one sip and my face practically inverted itself). There was also the bar in the Hidden Woods stage which sold frozen ice-pop cocktails made from real fruit pulp and booze. Their mango and rum combination was especially welcome in the searing heat of the weekend. All bars were uniformly priced, with everything being around £4, which for a festival is pretty fair. All cups and glasses given were 100% recyclable too, in keeping with Boomtown’s environmental ethos.

To conclude, Boomtown’s a great little festival, and you can really tell how much the organisers care about ensuring that everyone has a good time. There’s lots of love and detail that goes into it, and that’s such a breath of fresh air when compared with corporate titans like the Reading and Leeds festivals, where no one gives a shit if you have a nice time as long as you fork over plenty of cash.

It’s nice to be on a site so small you can go from the main stage to your tent in twenty minutes or less, and more to the point, where you can see a band on the front stage instead of them being a microscopic dot a mile away. We were really lucky to have our time enhanced by the brilliant weather over the weekend, but even if it had been raining it wouldn’t have been so bad, thanks to most of the stages and events being held in marquees.

Boomtown Fair is pretty much perfect the way it is, and I’m already planning my trip for next year.

All words and images by Natalie Dzerins. You can read more from Natalie on LTW here. Natalie also has her own website Forty Shades Of Grey which you can find here & she tweets as @TheNatFantastic.

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  1. Just wanted to chime in on the devil kicks, whilst I agree women in music are woefully under represented there were more than two women on the devil kicks dancefloor, i make it atleast 13 after a quick glance at the boomtown program:
    sonic boom six (1), hill billy moon explosion (1), empress of fur (1), Screaming Sugar Skulls (1), bored of justice (3), roughneck riot (2), pusscat & the dirty johnson (1), Kick ’em Jenny (1), dragster (1), the junk (1).

    This is obviusly far lower than it could/should have been (around 10% of the performers?) but its better than two and probably not massively different to some of the other stages, or other festivals, some music venues. I saw the ‘dancing girls’ on stage during the filamnts and it made me and my friend rather uncomfortable, but I didn’t see them any other time was it really every night?

  2. Boomtown Fair 2012: Saturday dance tent 9pm…

    Slamboree: Everyone\’s Favourite Neo-Balkan Rave Circus

    Slamboree describe themselves as a “pyrocircus rave massive”, a “10-piece live band with a Smorgasbord of performers, daredevils and entertainers” who span the genres of “breakbeat, dubstep, drum and bass, dub, techno and electro fused with balkan folk and “gypsy flavours”.

    I went along to see them at Boomtown fully expecting a group compensating for lack of musical talent by having lots of people distracting you and not playing a song long enough for you to work out it\’s shit. This wasn\’t the case.

    I\’m no musical connoiseur so can\’t tell you exactly what genres they were fusing but whatever they playing was the definition of danceable. In reality though, for me at least, the music was no more than a soundtrack for the visual show. An accompaniment to the on-stage juggling, firebreathing, backflipping, stripping and acrobatics and the colourful light display and videos of Bill Hicks and rollercoasters projected onto cubes above the crowd.

    There\’s a video below and you can listen to them on soundcloud (httpss:// but it\’s an experience best enjoyed live so get to one of their shows. Their next one\’s at Bestival. If you like what you see make sure that you keep checking back to Sick Chirpse for Batman_LDN\’s coverage of the festival in association with those fine guys over at Cheese or Lemon. Should be coming in the next week or so.

  3. Beenie Man shouldn’t have been booked if he’s a ‘massive homophobe’. It shouldn’t have been him who cancelled, it should’ve been the festival.
    If someone was a massive racist they wouldn’t have even been considered for it.


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