It’s probably fair to say that it hasn’t been the easiest 12 months for The Big Chill. Facing a backlash following Festival Republic’s 2009 takeover, last years event was plagued by persistent low murmur of dissent about 'it’s not what it used to be', reaching a cacophony in April, when Kanye West was announced as the Saturday headliner. Cue mass outrage and the posting of some horrendous, occasionally threatening comments on the official Facebook page that certainly didn’t match the nicely cultivated image that certain Big Chill 'veterans' aspire to.
Arriving on site, it is clear that the negative publicity has had some effect. The Big Chill has always had plenty of space to move around in but this year, you can comfortably wander around without the risk of treading on any dubstepping toes. But though it is certainly not sold out, neither is it the ghost town that many doomsayers predicted. If anything, they seem to have altered the site to cater more for the family element. And yes, the Gio Gio wearing, beret-sporting, ketamine craving teens are still there this year. But less in number. And less aggressive, I see no trouble all weekend: no security guards scuffling with folk, no fights.
So onto the music, and first up on the main Deer Park Stage as the Friday erupts in sun is Zola Jesus, whose enrapturing voice, like Bjork after 40 Marlboro Reds on a night out in some dark, dank electro basement club, twists words and phrases deliciously around brooding synth lines and stuttering beats. Taking a wander around the site and heading into the White Rabbit Tent, I strike gold; being absolutely floored by The Koolaid Electric Company. A glorious combination of Jesus and Mary Chain / My Bloody Valentine style effects and wash combined impeccably with Brian Wilson/Phil Spector harmonies and pop-drum love, it is wonderful to listen to. Thoroughly impressive: the sort of band who you could very easily fall for.
Ariel Pink’s Haunted Graffiti, who I’ve struggled with on record, are actually rather marvellous live: his gleaming Eighties sound and his twisted pop sensibility somehow making perfect sense today. Despite this, the unusual sonic textures seem to completely baffle the majority of the crowd, who would clearly rather be listening to something more straightforward. Which is a shame really, certainly his sound is chaotic and cluttered at times, but also profoundly engaging.
After a quick food stop, it’s back to the main stage for Wild Beasts. For anyone struggling for solace in British guitar music at present, Wild Beasts are the perfect shelter to run to among the storm of mediocrity. The likes of ‘Hooting and Howling’ and ‘We’ve Still Got The Taste Dancing on our Tongues’ are greeted like old friends whilst the tracks from Smother lose some of their seductiveness live, but gain a force and bite that more than compensates. More than any British band at this moment, they utterly and completely understand rhythm, imbuing their music with a textured, tribal quality. Effortless and immediate, they’re fast becoming one of our most important and treasured bands.
When mentioning her name to a friend, the comment afforded to Neneh Cherry was “Is she still around?” I can confirm the answer to this question in the affirmative and more than that; she’s bang on form. Dressed nonchalantly in a jumper and jogging bottoms, she’s determined to make friends with the crowd and her easy-going banter helps to throw metaphorical grapple-hooks from the stage to the crowd. It helps that her music still sounds great: from the elastic dub of opener ‘Manchild’, to ‘Kootchi’ and ‘Buffalo Stance’s pop-bothering intelligence. She’s to the point, and thoroughly enjoyable.
Empire of the Sun gather a surprisingly large crowd. And in terms of a sheer spectacle, this is phenomenal: spinning LED covered instruments and a pulsating backdrop of light and colour. Luke Steele remains a charismatic frontman but their rather prominent and obvious Achilles heel remains: outside of ‘We Are the People’ and ‘Walking on a Dream’, they really haven’t got any songs of particular value or virtue.
The Chemical Brothers, on the other hand, don’t need to do anything to boost their current billing: they’re on top and have been since 1997. And therein lies the fundamental problem: they are still pedalling the same old, same old. True, what they do as a live spectacle remains impressive to the uninitiated. There are still big screens and freaky images to raise the bubbles of whatever happens to be your chemical or liquid poison. And tracks like ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’, ‘Setting Sun’, ‘Leave Home’, and ‘Star Guitar’ remain undisputed classics of their genre. The problem is, this is essentially the same set (minus a few largely unremarkable tracks from their patchy recent records) that Tom and Ed have been hawking round festival after festival for 10 years now. And it’s starting to get decidedly dull. Their legacy is assured; carved in huge tablets of stone but it is difficult to get excited about something that could very easily be recreated with a good stereo system and a copy of any of their festival shows from the past decade.
Come Saturday and it’s clear that the Kanye booking is more popular than many imagined, the crowd clearly swollen by day ticket sales (though the Jessie J/Calvin Harris factor also needs considering). But starting on the main stage, Crystal Fighters prove a mixed bag. Initially, I’m genuinely impressed with their hyperactive cacophony of Latin and crackerjack dance from some dusty cupboard. But then the whole thing begins to get rather repetitive and irritatingly twee, specifically the deeply irritating ‘I Love London’.
Over at The People’s Ear stage, Ariya Astrobeat Arkestra are magnificent with their modern Afrobeat sound crackling with energy. I’m only sorry to get only two tracks as the whole place is exploding with joyous enthusiasm. However, I do manage to catch every last, dazzling minute of Janelle Monáe and her band, who are quickly becoming one of the finest live acts around. Everything; from the top-hatted emcee who introduces, to the blaring brass, to the flawless rhythm section and soulful guitarist and finally to Janelle herself: an unstoppable cyclone of soul, funk and dance steps, is absolutely flawless. Though maybe not quite possessing the manic chaos that made her Glastonbury set so definitive, the whole thing is positively spellbinding, mercurially topped off when Ms Monáe makes everybody crouch down at the end of ‘Come Alive’, only for a sudden, sideways deluge of rain to drench us. With a little smile, Janelle deadpans “I made that happen” to a barrage of cheers and whoops. One thing is for sure, she’s not going to be playing the undercard for too long. Now let’s just hope her second record matches up…
Speaking of contemporary pop stars, it’s becoming clear that Katy B is rapidly becoming one of our national treasures. Having completely packed out The Revellers Tent, she looks deliriously happy in her yellow summer frock as she conducts the crowd. It helps that her live band are excellent and this affords the songs a certain natural, organic flow that resonates with dance heads, pop kids and newcomers alike. In many senses, that is her underlying strength but she has songs too; great urban/pop crossover vignettes that manage to encapsulate the resonance and feel of twenty-first century youth culture.
And so on to Jessie J. Shall I? No… too easy. I’ll just quote my Facebook status from during her gig, word for word: “Jessie J is gorgeous, genuinely sweet & plays the crowd expertly. It's a shame then, that her songs make me want to maim small animals...” And that’s all there is to say on that particular subject…
And so, to the cause of all the consternation: Kanye West. True, Kanye isn’t your typical Big Chill booking. But in comparison to The Chemical Brothers, he’s an artist at his creative peak and prejudices aside, his booking is a genuine coup for The Big Chill, garnering the largest crowd of the weekend by far. What follows is one of the most surreal gigs of my life. A troupe of acrobats and dancers create body sculptures as the opening piano chords to ‘Dark Fantasy’ ring out before Kanye’s voice finally echoes out. But where is he? It takes a few seconds for heads to swivel before we turn to see him, clad in white at the top of the sound tower. Returning to the stage somehow, he tears into his set with impeccable vitriol, including an epic ‘Jesus Walks’ and a jaw-dropping ‘Power’. But at the close of ‘Monster’, just as I’m about to turn to my friend and proclaim this the best hip-hop show I’ve ever seen, Kanye spectacularly blows it. Really blows it.
As the closing piano line tinkles, Kanye takes to the mic to impart an eight-minute monologue about how he’s been “misunderstood” and raging against the accusations of arrogance and misogyny levelled his way. First, he’s applauded; then tolerated; then groaned at; and then sporadic boos begin to ring out as he continues lecturing the audience. I wring my hands in sheer discomfort: this is patently unnecessary, embarrassing and epitomises everything people ridicule him for. Oddly, the booing seems to galvanise him into more protestations before mercifully, he finally brings one of the most uncomfortable gig experiences of my life to a close. And following that outbreak of brain-thunder, he’s irrepressibly great again. The tracks from 808s & Heartbreak (an album clearly still close to his heart) are magnificent and the whole place explodes for ‘Touch The Sky’ and a riotous ‘Gold Digger’, reminding you of why he is still one of the most pop-culture aware and most intelligent artists in modern hip-hop. The pinnacle of the show comes towards the end with an astounding, tear-jerking ‘Runaway’ - Kanye shrieking his demons through vocoder while a ballet dancer leaps, rolls and pirouettes. Simply stunning. As a man, he’s troubled and flawed. But as for the music? There are few better. If only he learned to think before opening his mouth…
Sunday morning emerges drab and damp; assorted rain showers peppering the site as we pick our way through the grass in time for seminal Sheffield act Steel Pulse. And it’s well worth it for their superb, evergreen reggae, dated only by the lines on faces and the dreadlock length. The multitudes sleeping their hangovers off miss a true treat.
Norman Jay’s Sunday afternoon DJ slot is one of The Big Chill’s institutions. But last year, the whole thing descended into semi-farce as he attempted to DJ while stage hands blundered around him, shamefully undermining his set. Thankfully, lessons have been learned and with the sun poking ever-increasing holes in the clouds, today triumphs as a communal celebration of eclectic soul, dance and beats. Finishing with a tribute to Amy Winehouse (certainly the recurring musical theme of the weekend) he exits with an emotional speech received with huge applause. A gem.
Femi Kuti may lack the sheer mentalism and supernova energy that characterised his father’s music, but he still has a glorious ear and larynx - his contemporary Afrobeat distinctively melding African and Western rhythms on top of blaring horns and chants into a delightfully potent blend. And so onto Warpaint; who for me, remain a paradox. The scale of their ideas, progressions and musical constructions remain wonderfully and thrillingly conceived. And sure as hell; they can play. The single issue that troubles me about their live show is that Emily and Theresa’s vocals are simply too raw and untreated to effectively complement their music. I confess to this being a personal gripe but it is one that I can’t quite get over. W
Jamie Woon however, is absolutely fantastic. He’s unearthed a dark and poignant soul from bygone days and manipulates it beautifully with dub, UK bass and electronica to create a disarmingly pretty sonic origami flower. There has been a surfeit of soul music invading dance music and electronica over the past few years but as a live act, I don’t think there are many people I’ve seen do it this well.
Robert Plant and The Band of Joy (including blues/country legends Buddy Miller, Darrell Scott and Patty Griffin) could hardly be described as the sound of the future. But unlike many aging musicians (and especially with such a definitive back catalogue to fall back upon), Plant's devotion to creating striking and relevant new music should be generously applauded. This, the final show of a 13 month world tour, is stacked start-to-end with gorgeously crafted Americana. It helps that Plant is in such high spirits, cracking asides about Wolverhampton Wanderers and reeling off anecdotes but the real joy is in the music and this is a team effort: each of the three other singers taking their moment in the solo spotlight as the sun begins to fade. He obliges us with a few Zeppelin classics (including opener ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Ramble On’) though they’re all cleverly reworked to a point where only the vague premise of the original remains. But the one Zeppelin track played straight up: ‘Thank You’ from Zeppelin’s 1969 second record, is the one that resonates most. He’s still got the voice and it’s clear from the tears and hugs being shared among the (mostly older) crowd, that this is something a bit special.
Rodrigo y Gabriela gather a massive crowd. Huge. But I simply don’t get it. Let’s be clear here: they are astonishing musicians. What they do is technically flawless and it is difficult not to raise an initial smile at their clever interplay and stage theatrics. But stretched over an hour and as the climax of a weekend, it quickly becomes stultifying.
An audio-visual showcase by Chris Cunningham helps to draw things to a suitably brain-mangling conclusion before I’m sadly forced to forgo Four Tet in favour of the midnight journey back to Manchester.
So, how did it all measure up? The problem that the contemporary Big Chill has is that in trying to be so (admirably) diverse, they risk alienating people in an age where musical opinion is more polarised than ever and cyberspace makes everyone into a critic. But in reality, what could be perceived as its biggest weakness is, to me, its biggest strength. You can’t please everyone, but considering the circumstances and pre-event disquiet, The Big Chill 2011 succeeded with more aplomb than I expected. Still, it stands at a commercial crossroads: does it continue to seek the wider, younger audience or turn back towards its past with open, forgiving arms? Ultimately, The Big Chill’s biggest current threat is its public image under Festival Republic (which admittedly, may take a few years to change). But believe it or not, there’s actually very little wrong here. It still remains a great weekend with a plethora of superb, diverse music. And that’s enough for me.
pix by Katja Ogrin