If you’ve been going for a few years, the affection you feel for the Big Chill is probably not unlike that which you feel for your local corner shop. It might only have ever stocked the same things, been a bit disorganised and taken ages to get anything done, but that – along with the fact you always saw the same faces there – was all part of its charm. So the news that it was being taken over by Festival Republic after going bust last year was tantamount to learning that Ye Olde Quainte Ambient Shoppe was about to become a branch of Tesco.
Of course, the myth of the tiny boutique festival finally succumbing to evil corporate clutches is just that. The original Big Chill might have set the blueprint for many smaller festivals from Bestival to the Green Man in many ways, but it had also become a trademark as recognisable as any of the corporate logos now plastered across the trees and tents in the beautiful Eastnor Deer Park, one attached to bars in London and CD compilations promising a pre-packaged ‘chill out’ experience, as well as a sprawling festival once a year. And while the line-up might now boast Tinie Tempah, Lily Allen and Plan B in the shop window, rummage behind them and you’ll still find the likes of Alucidnation, Mixmaster Morris, Husky Rescue and others who seem to exist solely to fill the outer stages here once a year.
One slightly unwelcome new addition is the rain which seems to threaten what is a traditionally heat-soaked festival when we arrive on Friday night. Nothing that can really be blamed on Thom Yorke, who seems in reasonably chipper rather than arch-miserablist mode when we catch him playing ‘Everything In Its Right Place’ at the end of his main stage spot. If that’s set anyone hankering for Radiohead songs, at least Yorke’s followed by a band who – for the past few years – seem determined to become them, with Massive Attack leaving no-one in any doubt that their transformation from collective trip-hop soundsystem to 3D’s full-on rock backing band is now complete. So it’s the thrashing guitars of ‘Special Cases’ and ‘Inertia Creeps’ that dominate, whilst the requisite Horace Andy moments aren’t ‘Hymn Of The Big Wheel’ but the gruelling ‘Angel’ and ‘Girl, I Love You’. All impressive stuff, but it can’t hide the fact that the biggest cheers are when 3D takes a backseat to Deborah Miller for a stunning ‘Unfinished Sympathy’, or is joined by Daddy G for the closing ‘Karmacoma’.
One definite advantage of this year’s Big Chill, however is the fact that the music now goes onto 4am, rather than shutting down at 2am and leaving everyone dancing to the music in their head – or even the banging of the toilet doors – until sunlight. Still, having just overdosed on gloom with Massive Attack, we find Layo and Bushwacka’s heads-down techno set a little bit too much of a dark tunnel, so take an about turn to refuel with some fine deep house and disco in the Igloo tent instead.
Although they don’t cause as much confusion as the hordes of multi-coloured people traipsing around the site after Stanley Tunick’s naked photo installation on Sunday morning, Chrome Hoof start Saturday by playing to a field of baffled faces who have come for a nice lie down, only to be greeted by the out-there Sun Ra-goes-Sabbath tracks from the Crush Depth album played by a group of people who are surely risking basting themselves wrapped in that amount of Bacofoil. Hell, they even manage to make Bass Clef seem sensible; no mean feat when you’re talking about a man playing the trombone over twisted dubstep beats. It’s a performance The Ruby Suns can match for energy if not invention; their sprightly Afro-indie pop and electro Prince covers leaving enough of the crowd sat down in the castle field risking getting green bums after wiggling on the grass, even if very few manage to make it vertical. Quite unlike the Starburst stage, where hardy Big Chill perennial Tom Middleton is carrying a crowd through the open afternoon air with dubstep, reggae, old-school drum’n’bass and a few bursts of gypsy folk.
It’d be difficult to drag yourself away from were it not for the call of Caribou from the far corner of the site. Middleton might have played the Big Chill for years and know exactly what this crowd wants, but even though this is Dan Snaith’s first appearance here, the carrot-topped Canadian delivers a performance right up there with the Big Chill’s best. The dreamy electronic pop of his Swim album could have been made for moments like this – and when the sun hits tracks like ‘Odessa’ they seem to sparkle into a thousand prismatic psychedelic pieces, Snaith himself cooing the vocals like the true heir to Brian Wilson.
On the evidence of her last album Flesh Tone, Kelis is now less the heir to Mary J Blige we originally thought, more a 21st century Donna Summer. One of the more surprising choices for the Big Chill, the ex-Mrs. Nas also turns out to be one of the best, completely packing out the Reveller’s tent despite appearing an hour earlier than scheduled. Dressed like a refugee from Chrome Hoof, her music actually couldn’t be further removed from long-winded prog explorations of black holes, a series of short sharp sugar shocks that reduces the tent to absolute turmoil. OK, some of the newer stuff might sound uncomfortably close to Whigfield, but you simply can’t argue with a medley of 'Caught Out There', 'Trick Me' and 'Millionaire' sung by a woman who still manages to come across like an Ancient Egyptian sex goddess in a tent dripping with cider and sweat.
Making our way over to the main stage, it seems that Roots Manuva might have already played 'Witness (1 Hope)' by the time we get there – something of a shame, since it means we don’t get to hear an absolute festival classic, but are also deprived of hearing Rodney talk about how much he hates having to play it, as he has every other time we’ve seen him live. But it also reminds us that that’s far from the only jewel in his crown, and that in the form of 'Colossal Insight', 'Let The Spirit Move You' and 'Dreamy Days' he also possesses three of hip-hop’s other most glittering gems.
MIA is also an artist with one tune everyone wants to hear. Pulling what looks like the biggest crowd of the festival for her headline set, she erupts onto a stage bathed in incarnadine red light with all the force of a volcano. Tearing around in a tight catsuit accompanied by a troupe of dancers, the bass and beats of tracks like ‘Galang’, ‘Boyz’ and ‘Bucky Done Gun’ are as thick and lava, and indeed a fair proportion of the crowd around the outer edges look like they’re actually trying to dance in it, sluggishly wheeling their arms and legs around when not simply staring at the explosions of colour on stage, although the temperatures at the front are now well past boiling point. Although it’s more an earthquake than a volcano the show resembles when MIA announces "You’ve got security outnumbered – so come and join me up here" – the signal for a fullblown stage invasion which ends with MIA crowdsurfing across hundreds of people who’ve swamped the stage and the plug being pulled halfway through ‘Paper Planes’ – the very tune everyone not now crushing to the front came to hear.
Less spectacular but also less shambolic is Andrew Weatherall in the Paradiso tent. A man who’s been consistently perched on the cusp of every zeitgeist throughout his career, tonight he’s firmly on the cosmic disco train. It’s music that not only perfectly suits a DJ who has long combined Germanic influences with spaced-out depth in many forms – from the Krautrock and techno of early Sabres Of Paradise to Two Lone Swordsmen’s more electro-tinged manoeuvres – but it’s also ideal for a festival crowd; long, circular and endlessly absorbing. Much like the walk we later go on to find Primary 1DJing playing a solidly crowdpleasing disco, funk and hip-hop set in the Sailor Jerry’s Bar. Our aching legs are then given a further lift by the itchy fingers of Ninja Tune turntablists DJ Food and DK scratching together bhangra, dubstep, Jay-Z and Western soundtracks in the Igloo, although it’s beyond Henrik Schwarz in the Paradiso to keep us upright, his deeply trippy house and techno set ultimately becoming the soundtrack to our collapse in a corner.
Sunday at the Big Chill is all about an institution as sacrosanct as church or the Hollyoaks omnibus. Norman Jay has played court on the main stage here for as long as anyone can remember. This year is no different, with everyone making the effort to get out of their tents and sprawl on the grass awaiting his arrival. Until we realise that the guy on stage in the hat looks pretty familiar, followed by the suspicion that what sounds like a transistor radio in a field a few miles away might actually be his set. For some reason the sound is turned right down to a barely audible whisper, something not even Norman can explain when one of the happiest men in music gets on the mic to complain that ‘We don’t have sound issues like this at carnival’. He’s clearly frustrated and Good Times this is not – even when the sound finally gets a bit of a lift for some drum’n’bass and he eventually gets everyone up for ‘Empire State Of Mind’ it’s too little too late to really save the day.
Still – through no fault of his own – Norman’s flat start means Morcheeba have less to live up to than they otherwise might. Few bands epitomise every stereotype of the Big Chill as much as these guys, and even though the festival itself might have changed, Morcheeba hardly have; with ‘The Sea’ and ‘Trigger Hippie’ the perfect accompaniment to a field of yummy mummies having a picnic of organic strawberries and trying to keep young Nathaniel away from the men with the funny-smelling cigarettes.
Indeed, Sunday would seem to be the day the original spirit – not to mention line-up – of the Big Chill comes back to the fore. Roy Ayers does his traditional fortnight long version of ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’ preceded a few hours earlier by the none-more-mellow (or more wonderful) jazz-soul legend Terry Callier in The Reveller’s Tent. Meanwhile, The Magic Numbers prove that their slightly sappy indie-pop photosynthesises into something quite special on a sunny Sunday afternoon, and Gilles Peterson gamely starts DJing with a bit of techy house before reaching for the Brazilian numbers he knows everyone really wants to hear, before handing over to Greg Wilson on the Starburst stage. Who should – in theory – be warming up for a man we certainly don’t get to hear every year at the Big Chill. But it seems that the enigmatic Theo Parrish will remain just that as – despite constant announcements that ‘Theo is definitely on-site – we just need to find him’ – the Detroit DJ fails to materialise for his slot, leaving Bristol’s Futureboogie to step into the breach and deliver the goods instead. Something they do in fine style, keeping us locked to the spot until Seth Troxler and Jamie Jones arrive to take us to midnight with some tech house tinged with the colours of both Ibiza and Berlin, as well as the sounds of a thousand people whoop-whooping in a field in Herefordshire.
Now into the final hours, we’re seriously considering calling it a day were it not for the rumours circulating that Theo Parrish has actually remembered where he put his records or whatever was keeping him before and will now be playing a final set in the Paradiso Tent. The prospect of finally getting to hear him is certainly appealing, the prospect of having to wait two hours listening to the Zero 7 DJs less so. But Henry Binns and Sam Hardaker turn out to be an absolute revelation, their set as diverse as their albums are dull, dropping hip-hop, dub, house and teasing the crowd with an edit of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superstition’ that eventually shoots skywards like the fireworks from the huge wooden egg torched in a field earlier in the evening.
Those in search of slightly rowdier fare meanwhile are gravitating towards Paradiso, where We Don Play are spinning a set of dubstep and drum’n’bass as grimy as everyone’s fingernails after three days, much to the delight of those pogoing at the front and the bafflement of those waiting for Theo Parrish at the back. And wait they will since – despite having his set rescheduled for s-i-x hours later – Parrish is still tardy turning up. It would take a DJ of some calibre to be forgiven that, but luckily Parrish is just that, playing a fine and supple set of the deepest Detroit house and jazzy grooves that certainly works better in the deep of the night than it would in the evening sunshine earlier. It’s almost perfect, were it not for the fact that the bass keeps making the needle jump off the decks – the set-up apparently not designed for someone wanting to play something as archaic as vinyl.
Which kind of sums up this year’s Big Chill in a way, where the rush to make something new has resulted in a few bumps on the way, although nothing that couldn’t ultimately be straightened out. Those pining for the old festival will probably have to accept that those days are gone now, and that this new incarnation actually appeals to a lot more people even if – although there’s now more of almost everything – there’s also now less that’s truly unique. Still – that’s progress for you.