After an unpredictable week of torrid weather across most of the UK, Big Chill festivalgoers were graced with spells of glorious sunshine to accompany the eclectic lineup of artists that played amongst the hills and countryside surrounding Herefordshire’s Eastnor Castle. Courtesy of Lucozade and their festival-wide ‘YES’ moments campaign I headed down to check out all the fuss about The Big Chill and enjoy some ‘YES’ moments of my own…
As soon as you arrive you get a sense of a festival that takes pride in its warm and inviting atmosphere and beautiful setting. All the staff are helpful and whilst the mazes of the area’s road network are at times too much even for the stewards to figure out, eventually you find your way to the idyllic and remote Eastnor Castle Deer Park, a setting that gives the Big Chill an instant charm that most other festivals simply don’t have, as well as significantly more space to actually enjoy the camping experience rather than give up all privacy and dignity.
Some described the lineup as ‘patchy’ or ‘hit and miss’ simply because none of the days had consecutive rock or pop acts from start to finish. There were however gems dotted generously across the festival’s several stages and tents. Sunday morning saw Londoner Alexia Coley wow a decent-sized crowd of onlookers with her soulful sound and bluesy vocals and hidden away in the corner of the sprawling festival grounds, The East Park Reggae Collective delivered a stunning set of tracks suitable for the main stage let alone the tucked-away People’s Ear tent.
The festival’s main stage, The Deer Park Stage, hosted everything from superstars in rock, pop and dance to the most intriguing and alternative names in world music such as Femi Kuti and The Positive Force who gave a performance of spectacle with their tried and tested Afro-beat style. Femi Kuti gave an inspiring speech about the corruption and poverty in Africa that inspires much of his music, putting Kanye West’s pretentious ten minute rant the night before (something about awards shows and media attention) into stark perspective. In hindsight it was an even more poignant speech given the situation bubbling in London – something which was unknown to most of those in attendance until after the festival.
Another of the festival’s highlights came in the form of a bizarre collaboration of stars of both music and screen courtesy of The Bullitts. The mastermind of the project Jeymes Samuel welcomed on-stage actor and musician Idris Elba (Luther, The Wire), actress Lucy Lui (Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels) and American rapper Jay Electronica to the anticipatory audience and press.
Amongst the heavy basslines and subtle sampling their sound is a cross between hip hop, soul and rap with art-house narration from Lucy Lui, which becomes an elegant and intriguing form of storytelling. Elba proves that he can turn his hand to almost anything and seem natural and confident in doing so whilst the veteran rapper Jay Electronica grounded everything in reality with a spot-on, energetic performance. Lucy Lui is only featured sporadically across the group’s music, which for a festival performance means her having to leave the stage or stand without performing for 2-3 minutes at a time. Generally the collaboration works with some fascinating music being produced but on a live stage the diverse, fractured nature of the many different inputs tended to feel a little awkward at times.
The first day took a little while to get into the swing of things as Zola Jesus, Wild Beasts and most bizarrely of all, Ariel Pink, had mid-afternoon and early evening slots in which audiences might have thought ‘what have we got ourselves into.’ Making a meal of putting my tent up I could hear Wild Beasts’ thundering, theatricality bellow across the hills at which point I realised the fantastic acoustics of having a festival in a valley. Even if you’ve had to pop back to your tent you can still enjoy the Main Stage music which for those of us who like to catch as much music as humanly possible, is a real treat. Later than night Aloe Blacc and his excellent band lit up the Reveller’s Stage with an unforgettably soulful performance. Of course 80% of those inside, including myself, were waiting for the inevitable ‘I Need a Dollar’ to come whilst growing ever more fond of the modernised blues/soul/motown concoction that Aloe Blacc has created.
Saturday and Sunday seemed like polar opposites in many ways, the mainstream pop acts dominating the stages on the Saturday whilst living legends like Robert Plant played to an altogether different crowd on the Sunday. Nevertheless both days were full of highlights, another spot-on festival performance from Jessie J (an act I had reservations about even tolerating live) provided a fitting prelude to Mr West whilst on the Revellers Stage Calvin Harris, Example and Katy B impressed a noticeably youthful crowd. Metronomy proved they’re funky, electronic style could engage any and all crowds as they proved popular on the main stage.
The following day it was acts like Jamie Woon, Warpaint and Robert Plant and The Band of Joy that met expectation with fantastic performances on the Main and Reveller’s Stages. The poignancy of The Band of Joy’s final performance together made for an extra special set of nostalgic classics, with expert musicans and singers Buddy Miller, Patty Griffin and Plant himself all given room to stun the audience with solo. Warpaint were met with a sparse but appreciating group of onlookers to begin with before their fantastic sound lured hundreds more.
The weekend’s trio of headliners were refreshingly different from one another. The Friday evening saw The Chemical Brothers take to the main stage to give a thumping rendition of their hits along with a psychedelic, laser-packed light show visible from every corner of the festival. Saturday’s headline act, arguably the most anticipated of the weekend too, was Kanye West who gave a performance that improved with every track toward a stunning finale. With a typically huge stage-production to boot Kanye’s 10-midnight slot was full of entertainment, stage presence and theatrical performances (from his dancers to his own untimely, garbled rant 30 minutes in.)
The final night of the festival saw the expert guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela take to the stage to close out the weekend in style. As if the sights and sounds of The Big Chill weren’t breathtaking enough, the dual guitars of Rodrigo Sanchez and Gabriela Quintero left me speechless. Their set was undoubtedly my YES moment; full of passion and professionalism. Their humbling appreciation of the crowd and penchant for humour made the whole set flow wonderfully, not to mention their utter brilliance with guitars.
In later years the festival, which this year failed to sell out, would benefit from a price freeze on its tickets as the £165 ticket fee clearly turned some people off whilst keeping the relaxed atmosphere, spaciousness and diversity of its lineup will be essential – 2011 was Big Chill by name and by nature, something the organisers must preserve for the future.