Bluedot Festival 2018: The Review

The third Bluedot Festival has arrived amidst the hottest summer in recent memory and the once verdant Cheshire plains that accommodate this celebration of science and the arts resemble the scorched earth of a J.G. Ballard novel. Thankfully the torrid temperatures of recent weeks have abated slightly ensuring that arrival day is a calmer, more relaxed affair and efficient organisation, stewarding and security result in swift entry to Jodrell Bank and a festival that from a distance is like any other. Get up close though because you’ll find that Bluedot offers a new kind of experience.

Today is an extra day, so what do you get for that added forty quid? Much of the festival won’t launch until Friday but immediately after passing through security, you stumble upon the small but fully functioning Roots Stage. Many folk appear to have made splash down here; there’s a kids play area to entertain the younger, more energetic explorers at the rear but Izzie Walsh immediately gets my attention with her authentic Americana. The Manchester singer-songwriter is blessed with a dynamic voice and she’s accompanied by a brilliant backing band full of authentic musical swagger. Her own material is a joy but there is a real spirit to the uptempo cover of ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and Izzie uses this song to introduce each band member, allowing each to enjoy their little moment in the spotlight.

Matthew Whittaker follows and if there is a better way to get into the festival vibe I’d like to see it – this is an utterly chilled acoustic affair which Whittaker acknowledges by suggesting people lie down or even sleep as he performs. There is certainly a lullaby quality to his songs and even when he’s haranguing politicians, these more downbeat moments still possess a cool calm that perfectly suits the gentle start to proceedings.

Laura Misch maintains this tranquil mood on the main stage with some cool beats augmented by jazzy saxophone and playful recorder tones but the main reason for this extra day is the unique opportunity to experience the BBC’s stunning Blue Planet accompanied by the Hallé Orchestra. It’s a civilized affair; we’re allowed chairs in the arena for this evening only and we all sit attentively as conductor Ben Foster introduces the often disturbing and emotional themes of each Blue Planet vignette. The orchestra’s soundtrack is equally impactful, and the scale of the presentation enhances this. It may not always be pleasant to watch but it’s thought provoking and musically exhilarating. 

Friday starts in surprisingly orthodox fashion. If much on the Bluedot menu is slightly unhinged, Too Kill a King are here to level out this approach. Their brand of indie rock is conventional perhaps but no less entertaining for this. Anthemic vocals, melodic synths and big guitars drive home their impact which is up-tempo and hugely entertaining.

One of the significant draws at Bluedot are the scientific lectures. It may be customary to engage in brain cell destruction at most festivals but not here! The omnipresent Professor Tim O’Brien hosts an irreverent chat with Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne before dashing to the main stage to inform an engaged crowd about the future of the Lovell telescope which includes a PowerPoint and a Skype chat with a professor from Berkeley University in California. That’s how we roll at Bluedot!

Afriquoi provide a thrilling musical interlude just as the rain begins to cool us down. The band’s fusion of musical elements from around the globe generate a real sense of harmony which spills out as the lead singer jumps from the stage and embraces the front row.

 

My only gripe this weekend is the persistent sound pollution that affects the smaller performance areas on the site. This was particularly problematic during Professor Mike Garrett‘s fascinating lecture on the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as he battled for dominance over Alexis Taylor on the main stage and Ana Matronic‘s DJ set elsewhere on site.

 

Public Service Broadcasting should hold a permanent residency at Bluedot. They’re made for this festival and this evening’s performance is a stonking one. It’s a visual treat, undiminished by daylight and although their user-friendly setlist has been tailored for a festival audience, the inclusion of tracks like the jagged ‘All Out’ ensure the performance is still an emotional one. There is a party atmosphere for ‘Go’ and ‘Gagarin’ though and the dancing astronauts ensure we’re all in the mood for trippy weirdness when The Flaming Lips arrive. I’m a Flaming Lips concert virgin but the band certainly come with a reputation which they live up to this evening and then some!

After the fitting rendition of Richard Strauss’ theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey, ‘Race for the Prize’ follows with an explosion of joyous colour. A Willy Wonka-esque Wayne Coyne leads the charge with his explosive confetti cannons and a bevy of multi-coloured balloons careening overhead. He later battles with a huge robot during ‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1’ and gallops into view riding a multicoloured unicorn in ‘There Should Be Unicorns’. The zorb comes out for a rousing version of ‘Starman’ and he rolls over our heads before reaching out towards a young girl like some visitor from another planet. It’s totally wacky and thoroughly entertaining; Wayne, you broke my cherry!

 

Nadine Shah‘s latest record Holiday Destination is insanely good and her early evening slot on Saturday proves equally impressive. Dark, jagged guitars provide the backdrop to the prowling, defiant vocalist from Tyneside and the unsettling atmospherics on record translate moodily and rhythmically this evening. In between tracks, the singer is utterly charming making for a lovely dichotomy during her set.

The general theme from a scientific perspective this weekend is a cautionary one; the planet’s resources are finite, and science is helping us all find new ways to ensure our survival. In Gary Numan‘s world, we’re all doomed! Arriving bedecked in the kind of garb you’d expect on an extra from a Mad Max movie and accompanied by a suitably apocalyptic visual display, we’re treated to a crunching, industrial assault on the senses. The odd intrusion of ‘Cars’ slightly affects the forbidding, portentous atmosphere although the crowd appreciate the iconic addition.

Future Islands are not exactly a laugh-riot either: Samuel T. Herring is a more wistful character; his troubles are personal, his scars are emotional and after a bit of a slow, uncertain start he arrives at that place where the emotion spills out and he connects with the crowd in a powerful and combustible way. The Far Field provides many of the best moments, but ‘Seasons’ still seems to bring all of the best qualities of the band together making for a soaring and guttural joy.

 

It’s noon on Sunday and the Alice Roberts lecture is spilling out of Mission Control. There is no point lurking on the outskirts either as the Roberts Bakery Band is blasting off with their genre-bending brass band interpretations of iconic tunes, including Lady Gaga and Lionel Ritchie amongst others, meaning I never find out which three species changed our world. “Blessed are the cheesemakers?” shouted out one equally frustrated fan of the BBC scientist and I decided not to make the same mistake twice, arriving early to hear about the fascinating journey Suzie Imber went on to initially become a scientist and more recently an astronaut for a reality TV show. It’s a light-hearted, insightful and inspirational talk, unfortunately soundtracked by whatever is going on everywhere else on site.

The themes of exploration and discovery extend to the music on offer in the form of new bands Park Hotel and JW Ridley. The former grace the main stage with a hip, summer vibe with a continental élan which enhances proceedings in the same vein as M83. Ridley has to fight technical problems over at the Nebula Stage but his more angsty shoegazing take on the indie genre demonstrates his potential. As the sun blazes down during the afternoon Acid Mothers Temple in the Orbit Stage tent offer some respite from the heat, but not the noise! Blending endless guitar solos with psychedelic synths and rapid-fire percussion, it’s extreme, intense, completely bonkers and utterly, utterly compelling. Over on the Main Stage, Crazy P has the crowd jumping but I’m left uninspired by Lost Horizons and Little Dragonfinding more to enjoy in Boy Azooga‘s upbeat charm and crunchy guitar sound which the Nebula Stage are rocking to by the conclusion of their far too brief set. 

After some giggles at the Contact Stage provided by the brilliant Simon Lomas (“I was a poor student. I ate cup-a-soup all the time. It was DISGUSTING… things got better though… I got a job… bought a kettle”), The Chemical Brothers arrive accompanied by a magnificent sunset. Not being a fan, I’m not ideally positioned to discuss their performance. Was it good? The huge audience response suggests it was. It was certainly a spectacular event. 3D images bombarded us as lasers cut through the night sky and rhythmic projections on the Lovell telescope accompany the deafening bass lines and screaming, electronic pulses. As if the scorching sun hasn’t been bad enough for the poor Cheshire sheep, they now have to contend with nightmarish visuals, featuring a gruesome host of deformed and deranged creatures and humanoid figures! They really must think it’s the end of the world. For the rest of us the conclusion of ‘Block Rockin’ Beats’ is the signal for The Chemical Brothers to release their grip and they drift off into the darkness to haunt someone else’s nightmares, bringing an end to a hugely successful third edition of Bluedot. Any of the teething problems of the first year seem to be completely eradicated and the balance of themes, genres and tastes is pretty much perfection in a field. 

In-article images: Iain Fox – see more in our gallery here.

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