Festival Review - The Downs - Bristol | 02/09/17

Following the inauguration of the Bristol Downs Festival last year with the cities most prized export, Massive Attack, the event has returned once again to the public pastures of Bristol’s Clifton Downs. Just a stone throws from the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge, the festival also plays host to a wide range of activities and features bar from the stacked and varied line up. Including a vibrantly themed DJ stage that wouldn’t go amiss among the massive stages of Boomtown Festival, there’s also the brilliant Information area; a stage playing host to a plethora of characters exploring topical debates, causes and ideas that relate to contemporary modern living and issues in society, not just here in the UK, but more further afield. It’s a fantastic idea that radiates the free thinking and libertarian ethos and state of mind that Bristol prizes and holds so dear. As well as the local venders, charities, foundations and kids attractions, there’s a hell of a lot going on here today expect from the music, be it live or remixed.

Whilst thoughts of last year’s event may invoke thoughts of bleak territorial downpours and glacial temperatures, thankfully the ever so erratic and uncertain mother nature has appeared to bless the day with gorgeous sun and heat. With the day’s early arrivals basking in what could very well be the last day of summer, Bristol’s own Keir (7) kicks off the day’s affairs with a delicate, yet mature blend of indie and alt-rock with subtle, but notable RnB undertones. Whilst only a young act, there’s clear evidence present that this Bristolain musician is set for the major leagues in the future. With an extremely powerful and impressive vocal range backed with alternative laced RnB melodies, it’s quickly becomes evident why the singer songwriter has been referred to has one of Bristol’s offspring ready to explode into the mainstream. Some refinement on their sound wouldn’t go amiss in order to isolate themselves from the plethora of acts treading this genre, but despite this, the future looks bright for this young musician.

Whilst the opening act may be from just down the road, metaphorically speaking, Philadelphia’s The Districts (5) have come from more further pastures. Despite this, their conventional approach to stereotypical indie certainly doesn’t seem exotic nor particularly thrilling for the majority. Riding on the back of their recently released third full length, the group have had trouble breaking out of the American indie underground scene, and from performances like this, it’s not surprising. Whilst their no thrills typical song structure complies to basic indie genre conventions and stereotypes, what lets the performance down the most is the lacklustre vocal delivery; a dull mumble and trickles through the songs without wavering. Yet, as their set progresses, there’s the odd, occasional flash of a moment when the group musically shine with innovation and refinement, breaking into more atypical time signatures or taking inspiration from other genres, such as shoegaze at times. With this in consideration, there’s some clear talent hidden within this group, but it seems buried under a layer of banal genre customs.

The Districts - Photo Credit: Unknown

With the festival grounds now filled with punters enjoying the last of the summer’s heat, it’s time for a massive blast from the past with 80’s London’s soul outfit, Soul II Soul (6.5). Even after almost 3 decades, the group appear to be in pristine condition, with stamina and vocal strength to match acts a fraction of their age. It’s classic, late 20th century soul and RnB that’s archetypal to the point of severe corniness, but with the majority of festival arriving, it appears to the perfect fit for the early afternoon; something live but familiar, upbeat and socially conventional. Evidently, it’s just a casual nostalgia set, with the majority here being at least familiar with their classic radio hits from yesteryear, and ultimately, something simple and widely acceptable to pacify the masses now getting into the swing of the day.

Announced just weeks before the festival, and the last live act to the added to the bill, Ibibio Sound Machine (4) is certainly an odd booking. Fronted by the offbeat Nigerian vocalist Eno Williams, the group is a wild, clusterfuck of genres ranging from typical funk and disco to stereotypical electro and jazz. Whilst on paper, this may seem exciting and something different to the norm on display today, it’s extremely gimmicky and musically structurally conventional in practice, and combined with a wacky and eccentric presentation, the set quickly boils down to a novelty act that wouldn’t ago amiss at somewhere such as Butlins. Granted, it’s a musical spectacle that’s unique in comparison to the rest of the lineup that manages to engage the masses for a respectable amount of time due to the group’s level of extravagant energy, but after a full hour of this (more time than the majority of festival acts are given) the group lose all appeal, novelty and ultimately becomes dull background noise. The aforementioned Eno Williams is the only redeeming part of this set, the core driving force of this act, an individual with more energy and stamina than an Olympic athlete. With a shorter set, this may have been a suitable oddity to engage the audience, but there’s no way a novelty act of this caliber can justify a 60-minute festival slot.

Often regarded as one of the titans of the golden age hip-hop game, De La Soul (8) are certainly a bit of a wildcard in comparison the two other large acts performing today, a fact they openly admit to within their set. Yet, clearly, it’s an element they clearly relish, devoting themselves to bringing a ruckus and enjoyment to this crowd in which the majority are predominately uneducated in hip-hop history and culture. This is classic, wholesome and welcoming hip hop played at its best and purest, with classic genre stereotypes, such as synchronised body popping and DJ scratching, being key parts of the set. The chemistry between members is one of the most key elements within this set, with the crowd gleefully absorbing the confidence and charisma being radiated from this group. And yet, despite the somewhat cliched attributes playing to the genre, there’s a multitude of more underlying technical factors that make this a great set.

The classic group’s revered sense of quirky and playful wordplay combined with skillful delivery have not aged in the slightest and is still as impressive and enjoyably engaging as it was all those years ago. On top of this, the live backing percussion here today is flawlessly mixed and performed alongside the vocals, which in turn, add animation and additional life to the performance. Yeah, it’s pretty cheesy, and yeah it’s pretty stereotypical of the genre, but ultimately, it’s fun, engaging and by closing with set by sampling Snoop Dogg and Aerosmith, It’s a perfect introduction to the hip-hop game for this festival demographic.

In contrast to the hip-hop legends, Seasick Steve (8) is a more stripped down, bare bones affair. After exploding into the public eye after an appearance on Jools Holland over a decade ago, the Californian singer-songwriter last played Bristol back in 2015, headlining the Harbourside Festival. Since then, the popularity of this musician has only increased, and judging from the large variety of people spanning scenes and demographics gathered here tonight, has only increased his cross-generation appeal. It’s great, authentic American tinged blues inspired rock n roll, played at it’s purest and most filtered, accompanied with a rough and rugged aesthetic that bleeds and radiates into the soul and atmosphere of his performance. This aesthetic is only amplified by Steve’s collection of clearly homemade instruments, with items such as vintage hubcaps, washboards and hosepipes that have been levitated from their previous mundane lives to becomes instruments of good old-fashioned rock n’ roll.

Yet, it’s Steve’s charming yet brash approach to storytelling and song writing that’s the most appeasing element of this set; it’s no nonsense, but it contains a level of charismatic charm and low-key energy not observed in most acts of today’s age. Even when telling stories that older fans will have heard time and time before, he still manages to keep the crowd contained and engaged, holding them in the palm of his hand for the entirety of his set. Even when he’s approaching the grand age of 80, this is a musician that clearly has a lot more stories yet to tell and shows absolutely no sign slowing down.

Seasick Steve - Photo Credit: Unkown

With night now fallen upon the fields of suburban Bristol, tonight’s headliners Elbow (9) are without a doubt the ideal band to be illuminated by the gentle glow of a full moon. Opening with a flawless rendition of ‘The Birds’, a song that has been solidified as a live staple of this group, Elbow perfectly invoke feelings of reminiscence, joy and wistfulness with a towering, euphoric live set that taps into everyone gathered here tonight. Gently and masterfully flowing through a set that spans the majority of their highly successful carrier and gradual evolution, including a healthy serving tracks from their fantastic 2017 album Little Fictions, the group flawlessly present their established sound tonight.

It’s a vibration that can’t be pinpointed to a specific, singular genre, but rather a masterfully crafted sound that’s the end result of an impeccable blend of a plethora of genres and inspirations. However, there’s an unprecedented heavier and ever so slightly rough edge to their live show that’s absent from their more distinctively polished recorded material. Whilst this in theory may hinder the more tender and emotive tones being radiated, it proves to be another animated and engaging element to their already deeply multi-layered craft. Even the addition of live violinists and percussion adds a strikingly deep level to immersion, which truly comes evident to the point of intoxication when performed on such lofty and soaring tracks such as ‘Magnificent’, ‘Lippy Kids’ and ‘One Day Like This’.

Much like Seasick Steve, the most pleasing element of this set is the soaring vocal range, down to Earth charisma and confident stage presence of vocalist Guy Garvey. Whilst Elbow are often falsely perceived as a more conservative, stoic and somewhat casually middle-class act, Garvey is quick to effectively dismiss these perceptions, with friendly, casual, and often hilarious stage banter, clearly fully at home with the thousands of eyes watching him. Even when a buck ass naked stage invader crashes the stage, Garvey is quick to make the most of the situation, ushering security away in order to humorously waltz with this stranger who’s got it all hanging out. Even after the numerous decades of being a touring band, Garvey’s vocal range and delivery is absolutely flawless and incredibly impressive live as it is on record, fully maintaining his reputation as one the greatest vocalists on the planet. Bringing not only the day, but the festival season to a thunderous close with their timeless classic ‘Grounds For Divorce’, Elbow have fully established themselves as an act can dazzle and leave members multiple generations, demographics, and musical scenes in utter awe.