The Big Chill is a wondrous experience. As a well established independent music festival, it has set immensely high standards for itself, and its continued success has been attributed to its community feel and the unwritten understanding between the organisers and legions of regular Big Chillers as to what the festival is about, what kind of vibe is created, and the sounds that emanate from the speakers...
Anyone who has been to Eastnor will know what it's like to reach the top of the hill for the first time, and gaze down in anticipation at the site and feel the excitement as your eyes light up at the prospect of another weekend of great music and entertainment that The Big Chill is guaranteed to provide. And it's always been a steadfast guarantee. It's been so long now that the amount of trust placed in the organisers has stopped anyone from asking questions about what it's going to be like. You know it's going to be great….whatever happens it is going to be great.
As a result, The Big Chill crept up on us a bit. Maybe it's the massive influx of new festivals we've seen this year that have diverted our attention away from what has been stamped in the diary since reluctantly leaving the site in a euphoric state on the Monday last year. It’s an exciting time from a festival-goers point of view, with a huge number of events to choose from, spread all over the country, and most with the option to buy single day tickets, you get the opportunity to fit another two or three festivals into your summer schedule without having to break the bank.
Or maybe it was just because I committed to buying an early bird ticket at The Big Chill House in December after the promise of a discount, a free CD and a glass of champagne. Knowing my entry was sorted so far in advance, and not having to even think about organising my trip until much nearer the time was a great option.
Since then, things have happened that have warned us that the wind of change was perhaps starting to blow. First came the news that one of the co-founders Pete Lawrence, was 'moving on' to pursue other things, and would only be performing at the festival as a DJ. Not necessarily a massive issue, but it has always been obvious that his musical tastes have had a major influence over the quality of acts booked, and it's inevitable that someone who has been involved in the organisation of the event for 14 years will be missed in a huge capacity.
Without knowing enough about the circumstances, more than anything, it just invites you to you start asking those questions you never thought you needed to ask.
With this came the announcement of new partnerships with organisations like the ICA, The Roundhouse and BFI, all adding creative input to what has been an important, if slightly more peripheral part of what makes up the Big Chill. It's not about setting up a load of big tents with sound systems and just booking acts to play in them for three days, like some festivals. The Big Chill have acquired an amazing space at Eastnor, and their continued devotion to making creative use of that space in whatever way they can is to be applauded.
It's obvious that a lot of work has gone into the provision of the Art Trail, the Media Mix tent, the Body and Soul relaxation and massage area, and the numerous smaller art and light installations that are dotted around the site. They all help to create an atmosphere that perfectly compliments the natural beauty of the Eastnor landscape, its misty lakes, and its sloping woodland surroundings – something that will ensure the festival keeps an utterly unique charm.
The encouragement it gives you to explore the site, regardless of who's playing on the main music stages, means you can find more and more to entertain you. Whether through determined searching, aimless meandering or a simple happy accident, spending some time panning through all that's on offer can bring some shining nuggets of gold.
Another new addition this year is the Big Chill Nights comedy tent, and early big name acts announced included The Mighty Boosh and Bill Bailey. This set the tone for the line-up as a whole, making a bold statement of intention from the start - if you’re going to do something, do it properly.
As the festival gets nearer, and the line-up fills up with exclusive UK festival bookings like Thievery Corporation, DJ Krush, Matthew Herbert Big Band, and The Irresistible Force with Jonah Sharp, it becomes obvious that the same dedication and commitment to looking in all directions for the quintessential Big Chill acts is still there. Along with changes in sponsors for some of the arenas, the festival is obviously trying to move forward with the same ethos, while not unnaturally, looking to expand and evolve. So how long will this transition take? Will it be a smooth one from one year to the next, or will it show some signs of growing pains as it tries to figure out where it's going?
With the festival season well under way, the situation becomes even more complicated with the announcement that The Big Chill are to host the cancelled Sunrise Celebration, after it lost the war against flooding over the May bank holiday period. Offers of ticket exchanges, with entry to The Big Chill as incentive seem confused with people trying to understand how it will work - especially for those who had already paid 50% more for their Big Chill tickets in advance, and now suddenly another 3,000 people were being given entry to the festival at effectively a discounted rate – people who may not otherwise be interested in adding to the Big Chill vibe.
Whatever the intentions were that inspired this decision, from the outside, it again begged the question ‘Is something amiss here?’
Finally, the schedule and site map comes out, and it now becomes much more apparent that the big picture has become somewhat clouded. There doesn't seem to be any cohesion with the line-up scheduling, or logic behind the spaces people are allocated to play. When you’re looking at Friday night in particular, it’s almost as if the arenas have been sold off and are now competing for people to stay in their area, rather than the impression you usually get that there is some omniscient binding force that keeps an eye on these things (or even just a knowledgeable Program Manager!?!).
When you’ve got The Orb, The Grid, Thievery Corporation, DJ Krush, DJ Vadim, Daedelus, Luke Vibert, Hexstatic, Milky Disco, Justin Robertson and Greg Wilson playing across 6 arenas, all overlapping in some way, you get to the stage where you’re actually disappointing everyone in some way, because they’re all going to miss at least something they want to see.
When we actually make those first steps into the site, and have stopped revelling at the fact that we’re ‘back home’ again, ready to take in all The Big Chill has to offer us, we’re hit with a mixture of joy and dismay at seeing the lake area clear of what used to be a great space to dance to the sounds of Soco’s Fat Tuesday, while on the other hand, the Club Tent is extended and left much more open this time around, so that more people can enjoy the increasingly diverse selection of music that is promised over the weekend in that arena.
The chilled wigwam feel of the Sauza Tequila Tent lends itself perfectly as a venue for small, intimate acoustic sets from the likes of Fink and Spoono that have been planned for the weekend, with the artists often just performing from a chair to the side of the bar.
With the Media Mix and Big Chill Nights tents filling out the top end of the festival, and the Sunrise Celebration sitting comfortably in the adjoining field, there was a definite shift in the centre of gravity on site this year, all making way for a traditional funfair in the middle of the site, including a big wheel, a merry-go-round and a helter skelter.
Then nestling amongst the stalls we find the chameleon like sounds of the Havana Club Mojito Bar and the Cocktail Bar. Sited together, but with the freedom to roam between while you look for the perfect hat, or catch some shade under the tree, the atmosphere seems to be constantly changing around this area throughout the weekend, with sets ranging from a 60s Summer of Love set from Pete Lawrence and the scratch ridden breaks of A-Skillz, to the skankin sounds of the Reggae Roast and the bass heavy dubstep of Benga.
In contrast, the much anticipated addition of The Rizla Arena, with it’s awesome all day line-up spread across the entire weekend, is in fact, disappointingly, an enclosed space with no bar, and night club style security with a typical "Your name’s not down…" steward manning the ever increasing queue to get in. As the weekend goes by, it even develops an exclusive feel to it, with certain people being given wristbands to come and go as they please while others have to put up with the noticeably deader sound on the other side of the Rizla Bus, where people have no choice but to reside in.
Simple things could have prevented this exclusivity, like having some speakers facing outwards from the bus too, so that those outside could enjoy what is, at the end of the day, the reason they’re not watching Russell Howard in the Big Chill Nights, or seeing how close they can get to the Angry House on the Arts Trail – because they want to listen to great music over a crisp, clean, clear sound system.
The same goes for the far end of the Club Tent, where if the tent was packed you couldn’t see the acts on stage, or properly appreciate what they were pumping out of the speakers. How good would it have been with another small rig of speakers and a screen at the bar end? It takes me back to seeing Fingathing and Hexstatic in one of the tents a few years back, when stage cameras would broadcast close ups of the DJs scratching on AV screens either side of the stage. Rather than adopt what works over the entire festival as it gets larger, instead it seems to be becoming more modular with it, and it’s definitely not working as well as a result.
So what was our solution to these initial problems? Get over it quickly and get on with enjoying ourselves!
Friday evening was kicked off in great style with Roots Manuva & DJ MK turning up the heat in the Club Tent, looking like they were relishing the festival atmosphere. After seeing them at Koko in London a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure, but these guys proved they really know how to whip a crowd into the sort of frenzy they deserved, and with the Club Tent full to the brim, this was one hell of a start to the party. Obviously realising the temperature needed sustaining DJ Vadim came on and played an unpredicted but quality set of drum and bass before we made our way over to the Open Air Stage to catch a rare chance to see a live set from Thievery Corporation.
With instruments from all around the world lined up for use on stage, and guest vocalists queueing up to come and play their part in the Cosmic Game, their trademark mystical downtempo grooves had an abundance of life and energy, and the mix of funky beats and dub basslines kept the crowd moving right from the start.
The first hour didn’t disappoint, and although I would have loved to stay for the entire set, I was at least safe in the knowledge I’d soaked up a good helping of their sound, and the midway break in the set gave me the opportunity to return to the Club Tent to join Luke Vibert in bringing the tempo right back up again with classic acid tracks and hard breakbeats before Daedelus worked his Monome magic on his latest Ninja Tune productions. With compliments flying around about Greg Wilson’s 2020 Vision set and Robin Hexstatic causing mayhem in the Cocktail Bar, it seems like it didn’t matter where you were on Friday, you were sure to be entertained.
Fink’s acoustic set was a massive highlight on the Saturday afternoon, as we sat cross-legged in the Sauza Tent he gave us soulful renditions of his urban love songs like ‘Pretty Little Thing’ and ‘Blueberry Pancakes’ along with treats like Alison Moyet's ‘All Cried Out’ and a cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’ to finish. Exactly what the Big Chill is about. The Mighty Boosh brought their moon-faced madness to the main stage early Saturday evening before Big Chill regular Tom Middleton unleashed tune after tune of anthemic rave and club classics from the past with his take on the 2nd Summer of Love and 20 year anniversary of Acid House that we’ve seen celebrated at a few festivals this year.
His eclectic conveyor belt style mixing was perfect for the job in hand, and put grins on everyone's faces as they danced in front of the Open Air Stage. The rest of the evening was spent taking in all the night had to offer, with a round trip that saw us sample Matthew Herbert, Coldcut, DJ Food & DK, A-Skillz, and finally back to The Castle Stage for a Mr Scruff finale. With the days full of unexpected sunshine, and the evenings choc-a-bloc with great live acts and DJs…this was turning out to be another great weekend.
Norman Jay was in fine form on Sunday afternoon, even without the help of the sun, and Kid Acne was kicking out some classics from hip hop’s golden era in the Rizla Arena. The Club Tent was being shaken by the Asian Dub Foundation Sound System, with their ‘Weapons of Mass Percussion’ raising the roof and making sure the ground underneath was properly stomped on. It really wasn’t until the evening that I started missing some of the acts that had slipped the net. If only someone like The Orb had a Sunday night slot on the Open Air Stage before we went to revel in Greg Wilson’s ‘Credit to the Edit’ set last thing, I perhaps wouldn’t have even revisited some of the problems apparent at this year’s Big Chill, and they always affect some more than others, as the Big Chill forums suggest, but it does become frustrating when they could quite easily be avoided.
Yes, there were things that were badly underestimated...like the demand to see Bill Bailey that left hundreds of Big Chillers sat outside the Big Chill Nights tent, having to listen to the show broadcasting live from the Big Chill Radio van...Or the popularity of some of the DJ acts billed at The Sauza Tent, resulting in almost impossible access to the tiny little bar tucked just inside the tent...Or the confusion over whether or not David Holmes was even playing on the Main stage, which meant people were stood around in groups talking while he was almost completely out of view spinning records as the set was prepared for The Bays and The Heritage Orchestra.
With a conspicuous absence of a dedicated dub and reggae space this year, and definitely less funk and hip hop, the music was much more party orientated than chilled, and with obviously more people on site this year, the atmosphere just seemed more extreme, with more reports of looting and anti-social behaviour. The ‘leave no trace’ ethic that has become synonymous with The Big Chill vibe was pretty much out the window, with the site looking the worst it ever has by the end of each night. If The Big Chill is to make a successful transition into the big league, and still keep it’s charm, it won’t just be because the organisers get it right. Everyone who attends needs to adopt the right attitude as well.
The sort of trust that was inherent from previous experience of The Big Chill will hopefully be cemented by the organisers when they look back on this year and learn lessons from the things that caused problems. When something’s been so good, it’s easy to start questioning why it has changed, but this is the best festival location in the UK, combined with the opportunity to hear the most diverse and talented line-up of musicians from all over the world performing in an intimate setting, all making the most of their chance to stamp their name in the Big Chill book of legends. There’s no denying that The Big Chill 2008 was still a great festival.
Next year The Big Chill is 15 years old. Lets all make sure it is celebrated as the landmark it deserves to be. Let’s make it a party to remember, and all celebrate the things you’ve loved about The Big Chill, no matter how long you’ve been its friend.
Review and images by Matt Cook
A full gallery of images, along with all the other events and festivals we attended this year and last year can be viewed here
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