There’s a lot of 'I can’t quite believe this is happening here', and 'this is so exciting for our city' sentiments in Norwich. It’s much like how I imagine Radio 1 would be as a lover: they swing by your town suddenly and give you the best day of your formative years. You spend the whole day together. You both upload emotional vlogs saying how wonderful it’s been. But then Radio 1 don’t stick around afterwards to meet your parents. Radio 1 are leaving out your window. They’re off in search of a new lover in Carlisle or somewhere, and you never hear from them again.
Try to live in the moment, Norwich. Take it from someone who saw Dave Pearce’s Dance Anthems as a teenager in Nottingham. Don’t ruminate over it. Don’t wonder why they’re reading but not replying to your WhatsApp messages.
Radio 1’s Big Weekend is a fairly unusual prospect: people grab free tickets to a day out, before the line-up has been announced. It tends to be as mainstream as crowds get: they don’t so much only know your hits, as only know two lines from the chorus of your hits. Throughout the weekend, many an act will turn the microphone on the audience and beckon them to sing lines of their hits, and will get nothing back. That’s not to say people aren’t here to have fun. People are definitely here to have fun. People are really quite desperate to be here. But the audience are going to make them work hard for their affections.
And the festival can dwarf even Glastonbury in terms of the names it can attract. Last year's Glasto headliners Kasabian were reduced to headlining the second stage at Big Weekend that year. Calvin Harris is a regular headliner at the likes of T in the Park/V Festival/Coachella; last year he had to make do with being second to last on the main stage here.
This year, everybody got tickets thinking Taylor Swift was headlining. This was already a great day out in the making. Then Tay Tay seemed to be, erm, swiftly bumped for Foo Fighters; you can only imagine the 'we can’t turn down Foo Fighters, can we?' conversations that were presumably happening at Radio 1. For one, Foo Fighters are also headlining that other really major event BBC Music stream each year. And having both Muse and Foo Fighters headline is something of a dominance of guitars, and we’re regularly told that the kids don’t listen to guitar music anymore. Big Weekend had also quietly established a format for these headline slots: the Saturday night would always be ‘somebody Zane Lowe would’ve interviewed’ - Coldplay, Biffy Clyro, Jay-Z – whilst the Sunday would be ‘teen pop icon’ night – Katy Perry, Bruno Mars and Rhianna being the three most recent examples.
So is this set to be the toughest gig Dave ‘but he’s such a nice guy!’ Grohl has faced in years? Trying to win over a crowd that are, hand on heart, a little disappointed Taylor Swift isn’t headlining?
More on that later. Big Weekend is also a good opportunity to suss out which artists are most doggedly keen for mainstream success right now. Take Snoop Dogg, for example. Following on from the unquestionable critical and commercial success of his conscious reggae ‘Snoop Lion’ phase, he has now alighted on a new strategy in search of a pay cheque: get Pharrell to produce his new album, and tour it around events like this.
At Glastonbury 2010 I saw Bonobo instead of Snoop, which provided a sharp lesson in festival clash management. Who ever reminisces five years later about a Bonobo set being one of the all-time great festival performances? We turn up on site on Saturday afternoon just after 2pm, having deduced that the worst that could happen is we miss half of Ben Howard’s set. Nope - Snoop’s already halfway through, and plenty of people have got there before us, so there’s no getting anywhere near the tent, let alone inside it. Oh well. You can watch him below this paragraph instead if you like. I haven’t watched it yet, but I did hear from people he was good. #musicjournalism
The Vaccines seem to be having fun with the occasion. Justin Young is throwing himself about all over the stage. It’s pushing the right buttons for everybody in the field. All these hijinks don’t make for best vocal performance of the weekend, mind – you wonder if anybody watching at home is enjoying themselves, and you’re certain it will be sounding terrible on the radio. Should acts treat these sets like extended Live Lounge sessions and not play for the crowd’s affections? Discuss.
David Guetta at 6pm is an interesting prospect for a genre of music that’s usually fairly reliant on darkness and big fancy light shows. Certainly his set includes some relatively challenging beats for this time on a pop festival’s mainstage. It’s all washed down alongside Guetta’s pop hits though, that riff from 'Seven Nation Army', and a (to use the technical term) shit ton of pyrotechnics, so it’s probably safe to say he knows how to get the whole field on board.
If The Vaccines concentrated on played to the crowd rather than worrying about sounding good on the radio, Florence + The Machine’s set definitely has a sense of Let’s Turn In A Flawless Vocal Performance about it. It does perhaps help that as she’s broken her metatarsal and spends the whole gig perched on a stool, which does famously limit one’s abilities for on stage tomfoolery. It all feels a bit Jools Holland. The fact that the crowd remain firmly behind her is quite the feat.
They can seem more appropriate for Radio 2 though, don’t you agree? That’s why it’s faintly surprising to see them on this bill, but people seem delighted about the fact that they are. And I’ve certainly heard very good things about their new album. Certainly the set lays the new songs on thick, so the fact that it’s such a popular show with the crowd is a fairly remarkable achievement. When everybody is invited to pogo during 'Dog Days Are Over', the whole field obliges like they’re at a bloody Chase & Status gig or something. It seems they’re a band that can do no wrong. Anyway, as ever with Florence + The Machine, the final word goes to this tweet.
Speaking of acts that should really be packed off to the Radio 2 playlist by now, it was fun, back in 2012, to see the headlines ‘Nick Grimshaw bans Robbie Williams from Radio 1 playlist’ and speculate who’d possibly be next to lose the lucrative support of the station just as they’re releasing their latest album. Were one so inclined, it’s not a huge leap to imagine Muse - and last year’s headliners Coldplay - reading those articles and offering to play Big Weekend out of an almost desperate need to remain in the station’s affections. 'We know 18 year olds aren’t listening to us like they used to. Please keep playing us, we’ll give you such great access if you do'.
Now, do the buzz levels for this new Muse album seem a bit low to you, too? As possibly the only Muse fan that loves it when they go R&B (Madness/Undisclosed Desires), disco (Supermassive Black Hole and classical (Exogenesis Symphony), it’s difficult to get excited about this album cycle they’re embarking upon. It all feels a bit Muse-by-numbers so far. The first half of their Big Weekend set is very heavy on the new material, and for Muse, the audience seem to be having none of it. ‘Hysteria' is still the sound of a band bringing about the end of the world though, and obviously they’re fairly tight musically by this point in their career. The hits flow freely in the 2nd half. Floating voters don’t get converted though. You wouldn’t call the set a failure. But leaving the festival, nobody seems that pumped up about what they’ve just witnessed.
Sunday begins with singer-songwriter Raury from Atlanta, Georgia in the In New Music We Trust tent. He’s broadly the upbeat type, and asks the Norwich audience 'did you come here to get inspired?', to which the woman next to us yells back 'no, I came here to get pissed!'. A moment of silence in support of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is unusual to say the least at a Radio 1 Roadshow-style event, but it works in a varied set that makes every effort to put on a bit of a show. Raury encourages everybody to hug the person to their right, and I’d like to send my personal regards to the stranger to my right whom I immediately hugged, therefore also spilling his pint all over him. Afterwards there’s time to catch Cash + David’s playful atmospherics in the BBC Introducing tent, and - owing perhaps slightly to rain - plenty more are only too happy to join us. They’ve already got enough catchy tunes to see them playing bigger stages than this.
There’s no room in the tent for Lethal Bizzle, so it’s over to the main stage to see Rita Ora borrow heavily from hip hop culture for her production instead. She’s been kind enough to bring along quite a stage show: by this point in the day everybody’s in the mood for some well-choreographed dance routines and snazzy staging. It’s an impressively slick offer, which successfully does the job of disguising that 'I Will Never Let You Down' is the only moment of real pop genius on display here.
Everybody’s had a few gins by the time Sigma come on. One enthusiastic raver comes bounding over and tells me 'you know what: your kind of drum and bass makes people so happy'. Now, I’ve never so much as been in a DJ booth in my life, but he continues, explaining that he knows he recognises me but he can’t quite place who I am. I helpfully decide to announce that I’m (the 49 year old black drum and bass DJ) Fabio, which I (as a 31-year-old white-Irish male) thought might be something of a challenging sell, but he’s just overwhelmed with excitement at getting to meet me. That doesn’t stop him putting his finger on my lips when I talk during one of his favourite breakdowns, however. His reviews of Sigma’s set are perfectly serviceable actually, so logically extending his request that I stay silent, let’s record his thoughts instead: ‘Changing’ gets an enthusiastic declaration of 'that’s what I call art', but Ella Henderson’s guest spot on ‘Glitterball’ is less well received, with the feedback 'this is bollocks pop shit'. Meanwhile Sigma’s 'Bound 2' remix is – justifiably I’m sure we can all agree – credited as having 'clever lyrics'.
In between acts we get Radio 1 presenters DJing to the crowd (highlight: the new Chemical Brothers single), and Live Lounge videos. In the long history of attempts to whip a crowd up into a baying frenzy before shows, you have to wonder just how successful a James Bay Live Lounge video could realistically have been in building the excitement right before Taylor Swift comes on stage.
In stark contrast to Rita Ora, Swift doesn’t bring anything in the way of dancers or staging or choreography. Swift’s got the numerous incredible moments of pop genius on her side. Which should be enough. Taylor Swift’s songs dominate pop music to such an extent that it can be difficult seeing the point of all other teen pop icons. Every gig should be an easy win for Swifty. But there are problems: she only sticks around for seven songs, or 35-40 minutes, falling way short of her hour long time slot. There’s also a bit of an over-reliance on her backing tracks. But if she’s just about getting away with it, she’s getting away with it because she has those songs.
Big Weekend felt like an opportunity to see Taylor Swift without having to spend £55 on seeing her at Hyde Park, but Swift, like several acts over the weekend, hold back on large swathes of their hits in favour of their new material, and so sometimes Big Weekend sets can feel more like a teaser to get you back for a full gig later in the summer – you feel you’re being marketed at more than your typical gig.
So you can imagine how refreshing it is when Dave 'but he’s such a nice guy!' Grohl comes on stage and announces “right we’ve got one hour to play as many songs as we can” and Foo Fighters proceed to be more than generous with playing what people might want to hear. They’re skilled at bringing the whole crowd along with them for the ride. If you get the feeling that many artists see a Big Weekend show as a necessity rather than a joy, Dave 'but he’s such a nice guy!' Grohl is arguably the man who shows it least. Maybe Foo Fighters easily claiming victory in their Hardest Gig Ever is in part a testament to the magpie-like modern day music consumer that is all too happy to have an amazing time at both Foo Fighters and Taylor Swift gigs. But this felt like a full Foo Fighters gig compacted into a well-meaning 60 minutes. For that, Big Weekend belonged to them.
Performances from BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend Norwich 2015 are available to watch on demand on Radio 1’s BBC iPlayer channel.