The 9th-12th August saw the return of 'the UK's maddest city': Boomtown Fair, a festival which has gone from strength to strength in recent years. Boasting an impressively diverse line-up, it's an experience that has gained a reputation for being amongst the craziest events on the circuit, perfectly suited to festival revelry in its various forms. Imagine a makeshift dystopian town centre in the great outdoors, with its own unique districts and surprising doorways housing all manner of areas.
Live and electronic music from across the spectrum comes on indoor and outdoor stages, of all shapes and sizes, playing predominantly Reggae/Dub/Ska/Dancehall, 'Gypsy', Jungle & Drum'n'Bass, Dubstep, Hip-Hop, Electro-Swing, Punk-Rock, Breakcore and, well, the list goes on. You name it and it's more than likely the musical style can be found somewhere within the hidden alleyways of the town. Throughout, there's a 'new age traveller' and anti-establishment feel, as you're bombarded with distorted pop-culture references and artwork motivated by a sense of apocalyptic speculation and paranoia. Boomtown combines elements of many other UK festivals with a unique twist and 2012 was, by unanimous opinion, its best year so far.
I arrived a day before proceedings kicked off to help install a window installation in the Downtown area of the festival, Boomtown's 'red light district'. Characterised by sprawling graffiti, peeling walls and a series of inventive window installations and sculptures, the area hosted festival regular stages such as The ASBO Disco and The Dance-Off as well as the likes of Boomtown's own Devil Kicks Dancehall. On arriving at the site, the sheer amount of effort that goes into its construction was immediately apparent; the effort and numbers involved with the creation of all its stages and secrets showed the dedication and hard work that went into making the event. Influences came from all over the place, giving it a very authentic feel – one of a derelict site perfectly suited to debauchery.
The Downtown area was in direct contrast to the Uptown Mayfair Avenue situated next door; a far more glitzy and glamorous affair similarly suited to dancing the night away. These two areas served as the hosts of the majority of musical entertainment outside of the main stages and helped me form the conclusion that Boomtown celebrates the diverse mix of people, skills and interests involved in the underground side of the contemporary festival culture in the UK in perhaps the most condensed environment around; it's a melting pot for creativity.
Similarities can certainly be drawn to Glastonbury's late night Shangri-La area, though as an independent grassroots festival with no corporate or private funding, there's an additional squat/free party undercurrent apparent which certainly serves to add to the charm. This was epitomised by the size of the site crew, rumoured to be 8000 strong, housed in an area up the hill dominated by multi-coloured, decorated vans and caravans. The fact that the set up and maintenance operation required over half as many people as those actually attending the event shows the amount of effort involved in ensuring Boomtown's smooth running and artistic vision. Part of this crew also acted as 'Boomtown's Folk', a colourful bunch of insanely dressed people constantly prowling through the crowds.
The crowds flocked in from around midday on the Thursday, immediately bringing an electric atmosphere of buzzing expectation to the fields as the majority of the workers hastily applied the finishing touches to everything. As with the first day at most festivals, the main stages and arenas remained closed, leaving many of the smaller venues within the site open for exploration.
This year was Boomtown's second in its new found Hampshire countryside home. It would appear that on the strength of 2011, the organisers decided they'd found a winning location and formula for the festival, and as result really stepped up the gear. The site, to use the expression, absolutely smashed it. I was consistently impressed by uncountable new additions to the town, in particular the arrival of the mammoth Arcadia stage, a gargantuan fire-breathing structure (one-time customs and excise scanning machines melded together with jet engines).
Anyone who's experienced it elsewhere would probably agree it's arguably one of the most mind-blowing stages on the planet; housing a DJ booth in the middle overlooking the crowd and circled by intensely loud Funktion One speakers. Another new addition of note was the Hidden Woods stage, an area in the trees characterised by a beach-themed, sandy floor and host to some enjoyable reggae music throughout. A further, completely unexpected surprise was the introduction of a brand new and relaxed 'hippie-vibes' area, 'Hold It Down Town'.
Up the hill away from the party mentality of the main town, it almost had the feel of a completely different festival. Anyone who made the mission would find it full of tipis offering interactive arts and crafts and vegan food and drink stalls. Its scenic view over the countryside and rest of the event provided a breather and calming sense of relaxation, as well being home to an exciting looking kids field: 'a place for the little people to have their well deserved fun', which certainly looked like a blast for the young'uns.
A personal favourite in the area was The Earthheart Cafe, a perfect 24/7 chill-out venue and late night Chai Tea refuge if the chaotic main areas all became a bit too much. As more and more music began blasting out left, right and centre, wide-eyed revellers in wild spirits stumbled the first afternoon and evening of the weekend away. We ended up dancing for hours in the enjoyably retro Gramophone Disco, a sweaty room laying down some classic blues, funk and swing.
Midday Friday saw the grand opening of Boomtown's impressive, and frankly enormous, marquees, The Lion's Den (the home of reggae, roots, dub and culture) and The Bassline Circus (its darker, heavier cousin). Furthermore the first acts began on the central outdoor main stage, The Town Centre – the throbbing heart of the town. With such a huge line-up it was always going to be impossible to see everything but for the most part I and, judging by the reactions of the crowds, thousands of others were consistently impressed at the high musical quality and fantastic vibe around the place.
My weekend kicked off with '80s British ska group The Beat, most famous for 'Mirror In The Bathroom', who very much retained the tightness and energy of their youth and got the whole main stage crowd jigging around energetically. They were followed by American-Israeli act Balkan Beat Box who wildly engaged a hungry audience with their unique brand of gypsy punk fused with electronica and world music rhythms.
Headliner Tanya Stephens followed in the Lion's Den, and was, sadly, a disappointment. The Jamaican artist came on late and the music was turned down far too low throughout, perhaps through no fault of her own, as she delivered some rather uninteresting pop-tinged reggae. She may well have picked it up but we didn't stick around for her to play her most famous number 'It's A Pity'.
Moving on it was time to get down to business as we ventured to the Bodyshop stage, home to much of the festival's harder and more aggressive music. Stepping up was Virus Recordings golden boy and dark-side Drum & Bass veteran Audio; who's twisted, rolling sound fit the dimmed UV blue lighting and smoke filled atmosphere flawlessly. A heavyweight tech-step set got the crowd skanking hard, as his groovy, hard-hitting drums maintained the energy tune after tune.
On the subject of Drum & Bass, throughout Boomtown there was almost always something to see; be it the background music coming from a cafe or food stall or one of many other names playing one of the many stages. The likes of Shy FX, Benny Page b2b Marcus Visionary, DJ Hype & Daddy Earl and Dub Phizix all made an appearance. Breakcore and the harder side of Jungle were also cropping up everywhere: Jacky Murda, Krumble, Parasite, Drumcorps, The DJ Producer, The Panacea and others all appeared on the bill.
Other personal highlights included an amen rinse-out set from electronica legend Luke Vibert and a smashing hour of ragga-breakcore from Bristol based Stivs. Interspersed into all this filth at some point in the Friday evening was a nicely timed bit of funk infused gypsy/ska from Smerin's Anti-Social Club, another Bristol act, who provided a brilliantly fun atmosphere to dance to in the Old Town Theatre tent. This medium sized marquee was also home to The Invisible Circus outfit, who offered daily performances with some impressive skills on display – a man cycling the tightrope on a unicycle stayed with me in particular.
Some time on Saturday afternoon I woke feeling rather groggy to the sound of basslines and MCs blaring up from the arena. This prompted a wander down to the festival's many high quality food outlets, where one was spoilt for choice – the decision went some mouth-watering jerk chicken, curried goat and peas & rice. A lazy couple of hours enjoying smoothie stalls and lounging around aimlessly showed the scope of the festival even more; I was blown away by the sheer amount of things to do and variety of what was going on. In addition to the music there was a non-stop stream of further entertainment, including, but by no means limited to, a host of circus feats, fire-tricks, ridiculous costumes, ferris wheels, motorcycle shows, water-slides and general madness (such as the aptly named mobile 'Police Rave Unit' sound-system) everywhere you looked; even good old people-watching never failed to bring out a smile.
The first act of the day for us was David Rodigan in the Lion's Den who, as expected, delivered his usual brand of reggae music and historical and social commentary. What started as a slightly average mid-tempo wobble dub-step set transformed into a tour de force from the recently appointed MBE as the 61 year old played reggae anthem after anthem and displayed his unsinkable passion for the music.
Disappointingly, shortly after, news came concerning the cancellation of Beenie Man, 'the king of the dancehall', who was set to be one of the Saturday evening headliners. With no real reason offered other than that he had cancelled a series of UK dates, it seemed like 2011 all over again, where the similar cancellation of Jamaican music legends Cutty Ranks, Barrington Levy and Capleton also left festival-goers disappointed. In retrospect, this was perhaps the only negative aspect of the entire weekend, which isn't bad going, save for reports that tent theft in the public camping was rife. While I personally evaded it, this may serve perhaps as a warning for anyone planning to attend next year.
As the Saturday daylight came to a close with a beautiful sun set, we found an easy warm-up to the hectic night ahead in the form of Bristol based reggae act Laid Blak, who played to an intensely packed woods area. They were followed by some 'pyro circus rave massive' madness from Slamboree in The Bassline Circus, an interesting set with performers (dancers and fire jugglers) crowding the stage whilst party breaks and drum & bass boomed out.
The early hours of Sunday morning provided my personal highlights to the festival, a solid 3 hours spent in the otherworldly Arcadia stage: at its peak with spurts of fire illuminating thousands of people. Oldskool dance veterans Ratpack delivered a typically feel-good piano laden set and paved the way for Chris Liberator b2b D.A.V.E The Drummer. The Acid Techno legends and founders of the Stay Up Forever collective slammed down an hour and a half of relentlessly hard, bouncy Techno. They had the crowd in the palm of their hands with each mix and the experience was completed by the sheer intensity of the Arcadia stage. The eruptions of flame spiralling off into the sky physically heated the entire surrounding area with every blast.
The Sunday provided a fantastic close to the festival, and on the back of a couple of hours sleep, reggae legends The Skatalites got the day underway pleasantly on the main stage. At that point I simply had to re-charge and have an uncomfortably hot nap in the blazing sun to get me through the evening. I made it back for the UK's number one reggae soundsystem Mungo's Hi Fi, who, with multiple guest vocalists brought traditional roots and dancehall up to date in the Lion's Den in their own imitable style.
The next act Sheelanigig, with their energetic blend of Balkan folk mayhem, were an irresistible treat on the main stage and created an incredible sense of positivity in the run up towards the end of a smashing weekend. The mood was topped again when rumours that had been circulating were confirmed as Jimmy Cliff, reggae legend and star of The Harder They Come, was revealed as Sunday evening's special guest. The sheer energy of a man well into his 60s almost brought a tear to the eye as he tore through his own soul, ska and reggae hits, interspersed with political commentary and messages of peace and love. He included a heart-warming cover of Cat Stevens' 'Wild World' which had thousands of arms swaying to its memorable chorus; and, as you'd expect, he returned for an encore on the back of a roaring ovation.
Cliff was followed by the Sunday headliners on the Town Centre stage, French electro-swing act Caravan Palace, who closed the festival off in style. Their danceable, melodic and, frankly, cool music was a special experience, and during the encore fireworks spiralled up into the sky followed by a passionate speech by an organiser thanking the people of the festival for making it what it was and promising never to sell out. MOBO award winning Italian reggae star Alborosie finished off afterwards in the Lion's Den, before everyone was left to wander the various stages and acts still going on. We ended up in the aptly named Funkington Manor for hours dancing to some enjoyable ghetto funk before finishing off at the Bodyshop with a visit to see Ed Cox and his unique brand of accordion infused breakcore.
All round Boomtown Fair 2012 stood up to its promises to be the festival's biggest and best year yet. The sound quality was jaw-dropping throughout and everyone in attendance was in unbelievable spirits. For the most part you felt included in a 24/7 party crowd, and even though most of the major music stopped at 4am every evening, one was rarely left feeling short of something to do or somewhere to go.
The icing on the cake was that the weather couldn't have been better, dry, warm and sunny throughout with barely a drop of rain until the Monday morning as everyone came to leave. After such a first-rate weekend, even getting soaked on the way to the train station didn't dampen the spirits.
A look through the programme reveals the amount of stuff I personally didn't even experience, untouched secrets up the alleyways and openings in the town left for another year. The amount of effort gone in, the hard work, love and volunteering, certainly deserved a successful outcome for Boomtown 2012, and judging from my weekend it's safe to say the festival was an absolute riot, in the best possible sense of the word. Bring on next year!
Words: Patrick Muncaster
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