I feel like Boomtown kind of came out of nowhere. I’d heard about it before, but nothing much beyond it being pretty out there. Yet with the current inundation of UK festivals we seem to have these days, it had such a drastically different line-up from anything else I had seen that I was pretty excited to be attending.
After arriving on Thursday and performing that evening, I had a good chance to wander around site and orientate myself, (as any seasoned festival goer knows, this is an essential procedure to avoid waking up at six in the morning and having questions launched at you along the lines of, “Who are you?” “Why are you sleeping in the porch of my tent?” “Will you at least share some of the blankets?” We’ve all done it, let’s not make this awkward), however this did not happen. If anything, I was less orientated than when I left the campsite. The site was SO MUCH larger than I expected it to be, or at the very least appeared larger due to excellent use of the natural topography. Secret valleys, hidden woods, hilltop viewpoints, Boomtown has it all and I got very lost on more than one occasion. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially as every single person I met was super friendly; it was in fact the best way to make festival friends! Festival friends are friends fo’ life, one blud.
So to get down to the business of this reviewing…business… Boomtown is more than just a town in name and split into two areas, Uptown and Downtown. Uptown and Downtown are then split into districts, Uptown containing Wild West, Town Centre, Old Town and Trenchtown; with Downtown consisting of Chinatown, Barrio Loco and DSTRKT 5. Now I assumed that this was just a nice way of outlining different areas, with some decorations matching each of the themes. Then taking me completely by surprise, BOOM!
In EVERY district there were legit streets, houses, pubs, banks, post offices, jailhouses, most of which would open into a small area containing anything from bands, through to a roller disco. Yes it was exactly as sketchy as it sounds, I don’t know how they got away with it, but it was worth every bruise.
Starting off with one of the areas I saw the least of, Chinatown, if nothing else, was very aesthetically pleasing. Mainly passing through to get to the other two areas of Downtown, I always saw some mad fun stuff, whether it was a massive wall where you could play Mario Kart to your hearts content or watch some live-action street fighter going down. Come to think of it there was a lot of Japanese culture references, so perhaps a district name to encapsulate the whole of the Far East might be more appropriate? But hey, we’re all friends here, lets not quibble over minor details. Especially when they have a flaming steam-punk dragon.
Another thing I liked about the district set up was that it allowed each area to have a vague musical theme, so if you didn’t know any bands you could just head to the area of the genre you were feeling at the time. For example if you wanted some serious reggae and dub, you’d head over to Trenchtown. For hip-hop you went to Barrio Loco, the live stage of this area being Poco Loco, (full disclosure, this is where I performed on the Thursday, so I may be inclined to big it up a little), which was probably the best stage of the festival and everyone should have spent their whole time there. No exaggeration. In all seriousness, there were some great acts performing there over the week. On Friday I caught the end of the Hi-Focus Cypher with DJ Bb, and it looked like it had being going off for the whole set. Saturday I managed to see The Beatbox Collective and the 2015 world champions were laying down some serious beats normally requiring six people but nailed it with just four. The highlight of the stage though was seeing DJ Yoda’s live band set up. This was suitably awesome, adding a whole new dynamic to his now famous audio/visual set up. He ended the set with a massive cypher, including some familiar faces from the UK live hip-hop scene, such as Lazy Habits and Eva Lazarus, who absolutely killed it.
Now this place was nuts. The great thing about Downtown was that it did genuinely feel like the seedy underbelly of a larger metropolis. This was encapsulated in DSTRKT 5, the electric cyber-punk, pole-dancing robot (picture unavailable), Blade Runner-esque home of EDM at Boomtown. There was a massive boom box, surrounded by disused containers, (aptly named the Boombox), where I saw the end of Mr Scruff’s 10 hour takeover of the stage. This guy always impresses me and makes some seriously bold moves, like dropping Lou Reed’s Take A Walk On The Wild Side halfway through some seriously heavy tunes in the last hour of his set. It’s like he knows better than everyone else and gives them exactly what they want before they know they want it.
Leaving the crown jewel of Downtown, the Banghai Rave Palace, a god-knows-how-high structure of fire, lights and awesome. I didn’t spend much time here but I did stop by to see a bit of Squarepusher, who is totally balls-to-the-wall bat-shit crazy. I cannot even begin to fathom how he writes his music, a total schooling in glitchy sampling and live digital processing and manipulation; however I could only manage about half an hour due to a fear of having my head explode.
Moving to Uptown and the home of the Boomtown Bobbies, (arresting anyone who had the audacity to look evenly mildly unexcited, and forcing them to dance in cages), this pirate-themed district didn’t do things by half measures. The stage was nothing other than an actual pirate ship named the Jolly Dodger, hosting some of the most rip-roaring, foot-stomping, flagon swilling bands. Serving up a combination of gypsy, ska, punk and klezma, I didn’t catch the name of a single band I saw there, as I was too busy skanking my nuts off.
It was at the Lions Den that I saw some of my favourite acts of the weekend. A massive natural amphitheatre dominated by an Aztec style monument, displaying the finest reggae and dub boomtown had to offer. Opened by Stephen Marley on the Friday, I thought Trenchtown might be blowing its load a bit early, but it was a perfect way to open the stage. Marley and his band were incredible and, even though it was raining, they exuded sunny Jamaican vibes and a strong feeling of community through sheer force of presence. With guest appearances left, right and centre, they performed for an extra half an hour over their allotted slot, but it felt all too short. Gentleman’s Dub Club were as fun as always, sick musicians playing big dubby tunes, closing with their huge hit High Grade, which I heard an uncountable amount of times throughout the weekend on various different sound systems. The band that impressed me most however was KatchaFire. Hailing from New Zealand, this straight up roots-reggae band add an undeniable Maori twist to the genre, topped off with ten tons of energy. I genuinely don’t think I’ve ever seen a musician dance as much as the guitarist, which just looked exhausting, so mad props to them all.
The Wild West district leaned towards the bluesy/world music side of life, and it had everything you could desire from the time of the Gold Rush: sheriffs, bandits wanted dead or alive, roving skiffle bands – it set the scene perfectly. As it was the area I was camped closest to, I actually spent more time walking through it than being in it, which is unfortunate as the main stage of the area (The Old Mine) always sounded incredible on my way through. I did, however, have the luck to catch a few mind-blowing acts here, the first being Amadou & Mariam on the Saturday night. This blind duo from Mali, West Africa, was really a treat to see. Combining elements of traditional Malian music with a more contemporary rock-band set up to create a beautiful afro-blues sound. The music was truly joyous and the couple clearly love performing their music live.
Headlining the Sunday night was my personal highlight of the weekend, John Butler Trio. I have literally been waiting about a decade to see this band in one of its forms play live, so I may be a little biased, but it was MIND-BLOWING. What I really enjoyed was the combination of old and new songs, which didn’t involve him simply playing all his old singles and every song off of the most recent album, (unlike many “big” bands, who go through the motions of powering through their past singles with about as much enthusiasm as a wind up monkey, to get to the new material that they actually enjoy), but instead playing old tracks that he hadn’t become lacklustre towards. An immensely pleasing surprise was his performance of Ocean, which I would have thought he’d be sick of by now but, just like the line-up of the band, the piece is ever-evolving, allowing him to play it exactly how he wants to. I’m not going to lie, it got emotional. I may have shed a tear. That’s right, John Butler makes grown-ass men cry.
As implied by the name the Town Centre was the hub, playing a mish-mash of all the genres available at Boomtown. Like the rest of the festival it certainly looked the part, right down to the Town Hall, Post Office and bridge manned by 50s era gangsters with foam firing tommy guns (presumably to keep out the pirates as the area was adjacent to Old Town). I watched the beginning of Less Than Jake here early on in the weekend, who have more energy than guys their age have any right to, but it would probably have been better for me to watch them when I was 14. I could only take so much of their “you guys are awesome, we’re going to have some fun” overt Americanism.
To raise the bar, Streetlight Manifesto were everything I expected and more. I always refer to them as prog-ska due to their off-the-charts musicianship and techy song structures. Unfortunately I only managed to catch the last couple of tunes from Caravan Palace, as I was watching Amadou and Mariam, but they remain one of my favourite live bands to see. Each member of the band can do like three awesome things! The DJ is also a sick glockenspiel player and ballin’ jazz dancer! They’re doing a fair amount on the festival circuit these days so if you get a chance to see them don’t miss out.
Like any good festival there were probably about 4000 things I missed out on, as well as not having enough time to write about, so a few honourable mentions if you’ll indulge me: the Wandering Word, a cosy forested area where you could join in on a poetry slam or just chill and listen to some sweet rhyming words and the Tangled Roots, a combination of two huge sound systems (Lionpulse and Unit 137) with enough bass to play boggle with your organs. All in all I’d heavily recommend Boomtown Fair to anyone who loves festivals, as opposed to a 3-4 day commercial gig that you camp at like…oh I don’t know pick one, Reading/Leeds? Let’s say that.