Picture by Scott Salt
Now in its second year, Bluedot has already established itself in the competitive festival landscape as something unique and exploratory. The location helps – not many festivals can claim to have a giant radio telescope onsite – but it’s also different due to the line-up, which comprises of science and arts in equal measure. I can’t think of many events where you can catch a talk on hunting for meteorites in Antarctica on your way to see Orbital!
Indeed, it’s the legendary 90s dance duo who top the bill on Saturday night at this year’s festival. Alt-rock veterans Pixies and quirky Leeds trio Alt-J are the Lovell Stage’s other headliners of Friday and Sunday respectively.
Good weather and good vibes permeate much of the weekend, and there is a laid-back feel throughout. The clientele is diverse age-wise, with many families present. Here’s how things went down…
Friday afternoon sees Jane Weaver bring her hazy, kraut-influenced rock to the Lovell Stage. Her set draws almost entirely from her recent critically acclaimed record Modern Kosmology. The propulsive, synth-driven ‘The Architect’ and the glistening keyboards of ‘Slow Motion’ prove particular highlights, whilst she finds time for a couple of older songs in the form of ‘Don’t Take My Soul’ and the fantastic ‘I Need a Connection’.
The Moonlandingz demonstrate volume and stage presence on the couple of songs I catch, but the appeal of electronic titans Leftfield playing their classic album Leftism in full in the Orbit tent is enough to draw me away. Originally announced as some sort of bizarre exclusive performance for Amazon Music subscribers, the organisers thankfully saw sense and decided to let everyone in. The tent is therefore packed as Neil Barnes and co. take to the stage and launch into ‘Release the Pressure’. Leftism isn’t a record I’m hugely familiar with, but it’s an enjoyable performance regardless. The accompanying visuals are impressive in a 90s sort of way, and the band are joined by various guest vocalists throughout the performance. Those front and centre seem to be losing it to pretty much everything, but the rest of the tent joins in for penultimate song ‘Open Up’. The show closes in a subtle fashion with the Barnes performing a spoken word segment over the ambient throbbing of ‘21st Century Poem’.
Later on, Pixies take to the Lovell Stage and play what the woman next to me laments half way through as a “festival set”. For most of the field, however, this can only be a good thing and they bring some of the big guns out early on with an opening duo of ‘Gouge Away’ and ‘Debaser’. They do sneak in a couple of songs from 2016’s Head Carrier, but you’re never too far away from a hit. Despite this, the atmosphere seems a little stilted to begin with, but the combination of a mid-set appearance of ‘Where is My Mind?’ and a united defiance against the inclement weather changes this. In typical Pixies style, there’s no chit-chat and no bullshit, just fantastic song after fantastic song. They finally take their bows after a huge singalong to ‘Hey’, before returning to their positions for a killer finale of ‘Into the White’ accompanied by the most ridiculous amount of dry ice I’ve ever seen. Bassist Paz Lenchantin does such a good job of the vocals on the track that Kim Deal’s absence no longer seems to matter.
Local poet Tony Walsh – whose poem ‘This is the Place’ has become something of a totem in Manchester since May’s terror attack – opens the Lovell Stage with some emotive and inspiring words on Saturday. This is followed by a mammoth set by Hannah Peel and Tubular Brass, who play a new piece called ‘Journey to Cassiopeia’ followed by Mike Oldfield’s ‘Tubular Bells’ in its entirety. The brass adds some interesting new textures to this old classic.
Leeds’ should be legends Post War Glamour Girls then bring the Lovell Stage to its knees with their thrilling dystopian post-punk. The set is dominated by tracks from the fantastic Swan Songs, released earlier this year. The Brexit-inspired ‘Big Trip’ is a highlight, and takes on particular pertinence here, with artists and scientists united in worrying what may happen to their respective fields following the UK’s looming EU exit.
I’m less impressed by the meandering krautrock of W. H. Lung on the Nebula Stage shortly after. Perhaps the muddy sound doesn’t help, but an afternoon nap proves to be more appealing.
London-based alt-pop band Boxed In take to the Lovell Stage later in the day, and their infectious, carefully crafted songs are enough to win over the crowd. The start of their set sees the majority of the audience lounging on the grass, but by the end, plenty of people are on their feet and grooving away.
Synth-pop sensation Shura follows with a highly personal performance. Maybe she always indulges the crowd with between-song tales of unrequited love, but it certainly gives the show an intimacy. Following a brilliant rendition of ‘Touch’, she finishes with a frenzied take on ‘White Light’ which ends with her pushing a synth to the floor, although the faux-aggressive effect of this is somewhat tempered by the understandably huge grin she flashes the enthused crowd as she leaves the stage.
I then manage to catch the second half of the Radiophonic Workshop’s performance on the Orbit Stage. A large audience is here to see these pioneers of electronic music. The stage is a clutter of keyboards, synths, a theremin, and the various other machines they use to make sounds that still sound mysterious to this day. They’re joined by Paul Hartnoll from Orbital for one track, a move that is reciprocated on the Lovell Stage later in the evening. After a brief tribute to Delia Derbyshire, who would have been 80 this year, they close magnificently with her most well-known work, which is, of course, the Doctor Who theme tune!
My Goldfrapp-shaped musical black hole is enough to tempt me away from her performance after a few songs to see Factory Floor and enjoy the magnificent noise they make. I’m not exactly a wiz with techno sub-genres, but whatever this is it’s incredible. Gabriel Gurnsey pounds away at a drum kit whilst Nik Colk dashes around a rig consisting of lots of electronic things. I’ve no idea what she’s doing, but it’s brilliant. Most punters seem to be at Goldfrapp, but those that are here are all absolutely loving it.
Factory Floor turn out to be the ideal warm up for Orbital, who manage to turn an otherwise chilled-out festival into something vaguely resembling a rave. Opening with ‘Lush’ from 2012’s Wonky, it’s then straight into some oldies, including ‘Impact (The Earth is Burning)’ and ‘The Girl With the Sun in Her Head’. These guys are old hands at this, and despite their recent absence, smashing festival headline slots is clearly something they still manage with ease. It takes until the second half of the set for darkness to fall and the impressive light show to come into effect, but by the time they belt out ‘Belfast’ and ‘Doctor?’ (their own, ever so slightly different take on the Doctor Who theme tune), it’s lasers galore. As a full moon rises next to the telescope, the combined natural and human spectacle is one for the ages. They return to their first record for ‘Chime’, before closing in predictably epic fashion with ‘Where is it Going?’. They prove to be exactly as perfect for this festival as you’d hope.
In a brilliant bit of line-up curation, Soulwax begin their set on the Orbit Stage just as Orbital finish. The Belgian electro-punk provocateurs provide an inspired after party. With three drummers in tow, their sound is greatly augmented live as they propel revellers into the early hours.
For those still out, Joe Goddard continues the fun over on the Nebula Stage. His solo record, released in April, is an absolute blast, and even more so live. Dressed in what are basically glorified bright orange pyjamas which appear to have dinosaurs on, he takes us on a euphoric trip through the album’s highlights. Valentina helps out on vocals, although sadly her voice is drowned out in the mix. Highlights include his take on house classic ‘Music is the Answer’ and glorious closer ‘Home’.
It’s a hot, sunny Sunday afternoon, and Ten Fé are here to provide a great soundtrack. Their alluring blend of country and electronic influences turns out to be perfect music to sprawl on the grass in front of a massive telescope to. Particularly intriguing is their take on Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’.
In more intense scenes, reunited Wrexham post-punk trio Gallops just manage to squeeze four sprawling pieces of music into their half-hour set on the Nebula Stage, before Rival Consoles brings some atmospheric electronica and possibly the most impressive on-screen visuals of the weekend to the Orbit Stage.
Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Anna Meredith follows with a set that turns out to be a festival highlight. She brings tracks from her 2016 album Varmints to life with the help of a five-piece band including a tuba player and a cellist in a genre-defying 50-minute set. Opening with the blaze of trumpets and drums that is ‘Nautilus’, it’s hard not to be in awe of what is coming through the speakers. Her set is skewed towards her instrumental tracks, and ends up being more dance orientated than one might expect, although my own limbs struggle with the multitude of time signature changes. There’s room for a beautiful cello interlude, however, and ‘Something Helpful’ is turned from a sweet two-minute ditty into a dramatic show-stopper.
Shortly afterwards, TMB favourites Team Picture slog it out to a small but appreciative crowd on the Nebula Stage. I go into their set blind and leave completely smitten. Whether it’s their addictive driving post-punk or the dreamy vocals on ‘Potpourri Headache’, they end up being my discovery of the weekend.
Over on the Lovell Stage, idiosyncratic Manchester psych-rock project Whyte Horses perform with various friends as the Whyte Horses Experience. As I arrive, Damon Gough aka Badly Drawn Boy is on stage, as are several dancers wearing white clown face paint and what appear to be blue ponchos. As the band perform the dancers sway and dance along in front, some looking delighted and some looking distraught. It’s quite a surreal spectacle.
As the sun starts to set, it’s the turn of Californian indie-rock troupe Warpaint. I’m not exactly their biggest fan, but they deliver the goods this evening, with ‘Keep it Healthy’ and ‘Love is to Die’ providing stand-out moments. Particularly noteworthy is Stella Mozgawa’s complex yet metronomic drumming.
I’m also pleasantly surprised by Lovell Stage headliners Alt-J. ‘Meh’ pretty much summarises my past opinion of them, but they put on an undeniably impressive show tonight. After a late start seemingly due to some screen malfunctions, they take to the stage surrounded by LED lights and open with the atmospheric ‘3WW’. Their first and arguably best record An Awesome Wave features heavily, with the likes of ‘Something Good’, ‘Tessellate’ and ‘Matilda’ being met with big singalongs. There’s also room for new stuff though, and ‘In Cold Blood’ is particularly riveting. Their stage presence remains less than electrifying, but this is made up for by an eye-catching light show. They close in crowd-pleasing fashion with ‘Left Hand Free’ and ‘Breezeblocks’.
As the proceedings draw to a close The Comet is Coming manage to keep the party going a little longer on the Nebula Stage with their high-tempo cosmic jazz. Meanwhile, in the Arboretum, various installations prevent revellers from coming into land with too much of bump, including some giant blue balls emitting ambient tones, a ‘post-natural symphony’ playing in surround sound in a section of woodland, and an impressive fire show.
Bluedot has many remarkable features, but perhaps the one that stands out the most is how brilliantly and tastefully it’s curated. Take the energising blend of science and music or the exquisite way the Lovell Stage headliner leads into the perfect after-party on the Orbit and Nebula Stages, followed by the gentle ambience of the Arboretum in the early hours. Or the placement of the Lovell Stage with the magnificent telescope of the same name providing surely one of the world’s most impressive festival backdrops. It’s a festival that encourages its’ punters to try new things, and also one that seems to bring out the best in performers. Let’s hope it carries on for many years to come.