The Downs Festival
31 August 2019
Divas do it on the Bristol Downs in a day of top performances. Elfyn Griffith basks in the brilliance…
The line-up for this fourth annual festival high up on the Downs above the Avon Gorge in Bristol was pretty damn mouth-watering. The rain hit early and the clouds shot off to leave the crowds sun-drenched with the right amount of breeze to keep things from boiling over.
Earlier a mass demonstration in Bristol city centre against Bozo Johnson’s high-jacking of democracy and the general mess we’re in meant there was plenty of rebellion in the air along with pure enjoyment.
As Neneh Cherry so eloquently put it, “Fuck Boris Johnson and all his pals. I fucking hate them”. A sentiment carried on later by IDLES frontman Joe Talbot, gleefully yelling “Fuck the Tories!” and introducing every one of their coruscating masterpieces as an “Anti-Fascist Song”.
Before this, Dublin’s Fontaines D.C. had struggled against a muffled sound on the main stage and had taken a while to hit their stride. Although, by the end of their set, the sonic pop of their superb debut album Dogrel was poking through with such gems as Hurricane Laughter and Boys In The Better Land hitting the mark.
Over on the dance-orientated Avon Stage, the sound was much clearer for Nightmares On Wax’s cool grooves and easy, subtle, dubby soul, performed from the comfort of on-stage sofas. Back to the Main Stage and Neneh Cherry was also struggling with the swampy sound there, with her slow-burning Woman being hard to make out clearly. Things improved gradually during her set, or is was it a change in the wind direction? In front of a garish pop-art background of female empowerment Cherry – the former Rip Rig and Panic singer, Massive Attack and Bristol underground collaborator – gave a languidly riveting 7 Seconds, the song she dueted with Youssou’N’Dour back in the day, with husband/Massive producer Cameron McVey deputing for the African star. She was joined on stage by a party of kettle drum players for the lovely groove of Natural Skin. Having already sung one of the hits from her debut 1989 Raw Like Sushi album, Manchild, she had to end of course with the celebratory roll of her biggest hit Buffalo Stance.
The sound was at last sorted by the time IDLES took the stage – although it could have been louder all day in fact – with the kind of gloriously chaotic anarchy that has made this Bristol band deservedly huge. They go for the jugular from the off, with the screaming guitars and relentless drum attack of Heel/Heal from first album Brutalism and Never Fight A Man With A Perm from Joy As An Act Of Resistance. Glasses sail into the air, the crowd mosh madly down the front, guitarist Mark Bowen is already stripped down, as is customary, to his underpants. The spirit of punk and rebellion sears through their sound, an insistent guitar, drums and polemical vocal powerhouse.
It’s angry but it’s also refreshingly and invigoratingly of the mood of the times. It’s political and personal and powerful. The real Danny Nedelko – another Bristol musician whose band Heavy Lungs also played on one of the other stages today – joins them on stage for Danny Nedelko, the paean to the value of immigration. Both guitarists are in the audience at various times, crowd surfing and letting guitars crowd surf on their own. “Don’t Read The Sun, it’ll give you cancer!” shouts Joe Talbot. He lies down, mic on speaker, as the feedback-drenched guitar-screeching bass and drum frenzy of Rottweiler brings this beautiful pandemonium to a close.
Phew, what can follow that!? Well, it’s now diva time. Huge black drapes cover the main stage, expectation rises and the drapes fall to reveal the original disco diva herself, Grace Jones, atop a scaffold structure dressed in a metal skull mask, black billowing cape and rubber basque, opening her set with the prowling throb of Nightclubbing. This was Jones at her imperious playful best, giving a best-of with outrageous costume changes aplenty and a tight sleek band injecting Private Life with a reggae undertow, Warm Leatherette with a funky sharpness. She looked like an Egyptian/Rasta goddess on My Jamaican Guy, pole danced with a red wig on while singing Amazing Grace, and, knowing she was running late implored the organisers “Don’t pull the plug on me!” They didn’t dare and we got Pull Up To the Bumper in a platinum wig and a spectacular finish as, at 71-years-old, she hula-hooped in a sparkly bowler hat to the glorious groove of Slave To the Rhythm…
From one diva to the next, and the diva of hip-hop Ms Lauryn Hill didn’t disappoint either. To the contrary, known for her lateness and erratic performances, Hill turned up on time and gave another great show on top of the great shows here today.
With the massive crowd warmed up by DJ Reborn, Hill’s was a soulful celebration of her groundbreaking album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, this being part of its 20th-anniversary tour. Despite a constant irritation with the sound people to turn up her mic and other things, the hip-hop queen, in baggy denim and baseball cap, delivered a mix of tracks from the album including Everything Is Everything, Final Hour, Forgive Them Father, To Zion, her voice clear and passionate, her raps resonant. A medley of The Fugees at the end was blissfully received – Killing Me Softly, Fu-Gee-La, and a long, deliciously poignant and sublime Ready Or Not to end a cracking days festival.
Words by Elfyn Griffith.
Photos © Michael Brumby
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