Bluedot Festival delivered a stunning weekend in the depths of leafy Cheshire and Getintothis’ Peter Goodbody was happy to have a weekend of sun, science and music.
Walking into the Bluedot site to be met by Luke Jerram’s Earth sculpture, we knew this festival was going to be different.
It’s an imposing thing, his Museum of the Moon having just had a stint on display high up in the cavernous “Great Space” of Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral. Here, Earth is suspended above a tree lined avenue and low enough you can almost touch it, although sensibly perhaps you can’t quite reach. It was having quite an impact and plenty of people were reacting to it, taking photos and selfies pretending to be Atlas holding the world up on his arms. Predictable perhaps, but that’s not the point – people were talking about it and engaging with it.
The tagline of the festival is “Observe. Explore. Experiment“. And the Earth piece is a perfect metaphor for the festival as a whole, to get people to participate rather than simply consume, to take part rather than just watch.
Music is just part of what’s on offer for the weekend. There are talks, lectures and workshops on science based subjects such as climate change, space, the nature of matter, solar energy, the use of data, ocean science, the importance of bees and so on and so forth. Apart from the main stage in the arena, there are four more large stages around the site, all in tents given suitably scientific names: Nebula, Orbit, Mission Control and Contact. The latter two are almost exclusively given over to talks and lectures, although Mission Control was home to DJ sets later each evening.
The main stage was the Lovell Stage, named after Sir Bernard Lovell. It was he who was responsible for the construction of the giant radio telescope at Jodrell Bank under the shadow of which the weekend’s festivities take place.
Friday we took a bit of time to orient ourselves. As well as the main arena which contains the main stage and the four large tents, there are a number of outlying areas, such as the Planet Field with kids’ activities, the Star Field, described as a science marketplace, and the Arboretum, set aside as a kind of chill out room, well away from the mayhem of the main areas.
Afriquoi were on the main stage with their Afro-Caribbean fusion and electronic dance keeping what we were later to realise was a nowhere near capacity crowd. It was catchy enough, drawing on all sorts of house, soca, soul and jungle references. But we were still keen to explore.
One area we had been told about was the Pentalum Luminarium, tucked away behind the main stage in the arena. A curious inflated maze-like structure – a kind of inverse bouncy castle that you walk into, rather than jumping on top of. Once you’ve taken off your shoes and walked in there you find a series of connected spaces, some large, some small, all lit in different colours by natural light coming through translucent coloured panels set into the structure. It creates an eery calm that’s not easy to explain unless you’ve seen it before. A place to meditate, to be quiet and just explore slowly.
When we got back to the main stage, there was not music but a lecture from Professor Tim O’Brien which seemed to be about the earth, the universe and everything (we didn’t get the start). It was he who curated the science elements of the weekend, so we guess it seems fair to give him a bit of the limelight. There was a rather cool bit where he Skyped an academic in California to talk about the search for extra-terrestrial life and whether there is any purpose to such research. Not surprisingly, the California guy who has made a career out of doing just that, deemed it to be an important area of scientific endeavour.
The music pickings on Friday’s bill weren’t the strongest, with a few notable exceptions.
Ana Matronic had drawn a huge crowd to the Orbit tent for her DJ set of popular club anthems.
Public Service Broadcasting are a perfect fit for a festival such as this, bringing their science geekery style of rock to the main stage. So much so they even dedicated one of their numbers to Sir Bernard Lovell.
Holly Lester in the Mission Control tent was finding it hard to compete with what was by now a four way clash along with Roni Size, PSB and International Teachers of Pop, which a shame for her as this was an energetic set that should have been enjoyed by more than the handful who turned up.
Roni Size on the other hand had drawn a more than capacity crowd to the Orbit tent who were lapping up his New Forms live performance. 2018 marks the 10 year anniversary of the re-issue of his debut album. There were queues of people gathered around the entrances to the tent hoping to get a look in. This was no real surprise though – we’d heard a few people earlier in the day saying he was the one act they wanted to see.
Pictures I took of yesterday’s Public Service Broadcasting performance at Bluedot festival. They were brilliant! I shall be back at Bluedot again tomorrow drawing the scenery! 😊❤️ pic.twitter.com/rpooypF1i4
— Kelly Stanford (@TheLabArtist) July 21, 2018
We paused for a while to take it all in and reflect on what we’d learned about Bluedot. This most quirky of festivals. One thing we realised as we were sipping a beer was the almost absence of single use plastic on site. As we have experienced at festivals before there was a “glass” scheme where you paid £1 for a solid plastic beer cup which you were then expected to re-use or swap for subsequent drinks. All of the catering outlets used bio-degradable, compostable plates or cartons. All the forks were wooden. There were no straws. Even water was sold in cans rather than plastic bottles. Not only is this a welcome nod towards sustainability, but, of course, it also has the effect of keeping the levels of rubbish down.
Flaming Lips closed out the night on the main stage in a shower of confetti, balloons and towers of smoke. And the crowd, as they say, went wild. Opening with the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey they blasted into Race For The Prize before peppering the set with hits from Yoshimi to She Don;t Use Jelly and a smart cover of Bowie‘s Space Oddity.
— andrew twambley (@twambley_a) July 23, 2018
As the darkness fell, part way through the Lips’ set, the Lovell Telescope formed the canvas for a colourful, lava lamp style, laser show projected onto its undercarriage. This was Mega Structure by Marcus Lyall, a reference to a mysterious light source, discovered in the 19th century as emitted from the Cygnus constellation. Even the science was getting in on the act right at the end.
Wayne Coyne was a bit hit and miss, though. He started off fine, blasting balloons and confetti into the crowd, but there was a bit too much time talking and not enough singing. But when the band got going it was a decent enough performance. Coyne’s crowd walk in a large transparent sphere during a cover of David Bowie’s Space Oddity was a good trick.
UNKLE followed on over in Orbit from the end of Flaming Lips to those who still had the stamina. The tent was packed as James Lavelle did his thing, but by now we’d traversed the site so many times we’d clocked up more than 23,000 steps, or nearly 15km according to the app on our phone and it was time to call it quits after a short while.
Walking back to the car, however, we had to investigate one last piece. This was the Kazimier inspired Dr Kronovator’s Fire Laboratory. Situated in the arboretum area of the site, here was all manner of magical steampunk sculptures and installations all using fire as a central theme. Steam powered contraptions spat and breathed fire in what was a quite spectacular show.
Saturday and the site is much busier. There’s a queue outside the Mission Control tent to hear Richard Dawkins speak about his latest book Science in the Soul. The queue is more than 100m long and there’s no way the vast majority of these hopefuls are going to get anywhere near the famously irascible professor. This became a bit of an issue throughout the weekend. Much of the academic stuff was over-subscribed and just about every talk or lecture drew capacity crowds. You either had to pick and choose, or get in the queue early.
Anyway, we hadn’t had our breakfast, so we had some really rather good fish and chips from one of the many and varied food outlets on site. There are so many festivals vying for our hard earned these days that organisers know full well a couple of burger vans won’t cut it. The offering at Bluedot was exceptional from the smoked haddock kedgeree we had yesterday from the Scottish street food (yup, it’s a thing) vendor The Lost Bothy to the chicken katsu curry sampled by one other of our number. There are no complaints about the food. So, too the bars. Many of them and big enough that the queues were negligible. Good quality beer – craft lagers and IPAs as well as a whisky bar, prosecco tent, vodka cocktail bar and an Argentinian wine tent. Nobody was going thirsty.
Thwarted in our brief desire for intellectual stimulation from Richard Dawkins we head off to the Orbit stage for a bit of Chinese noise rockers Re-Tros. We’re a big fan of their album Before the Applause so we’re keen to see what this Battles-esque trio could produce. What we got was a high energy, fast paced drum and synth loop set with complex, at times staccato rhythms. It was a really clever show and a tight performance. 8 + 2 + 8 ll is a remarkable piece of work coming in at about 10 minutes it just builds and builds until you think they can’t get any louder, heavier or faster, but they just keep going. Definitely a highlight of the weekend.
— HOOKWORMS (@HOOKWORMS) July 21, 2018
As we walked back past the Mission Control tent, we noticed Dawkins had finished and the crowds emptied. Nevertheless there was a full house (with a bit of standing room at the back) for Tasmin Edwards talking about ice and fire.
The evidence given up by Arctic ice in places like Greenland tells us a lot about climate and how it’s changing over time. She explained how the ice taken from a borehole drilled down vertically can reveal all sorts of information going back many thousands of years, similar to the rings on a tree trunk, just in a different direction. Bits of dust and fossil get buried under new snow and preserved for centuries guarding their secrets until the researchers come along.
So, we can at least say we learned something this weekend.
Bluedot is sold in part by the oft repeated mantra that it is a family friendly festival. What that means in practice is there are thousands of small children milling around. There’s plenty to keep the kids occupied during the day, whether making things, participating in workshops or watching the various entertainers dotted around the site. But by about 8pm most of this activity has closed down and we did raise a collective eyebrow last night at the number of really quite small children in the Arena watching Wayne Coyne bellow out “Fuck Yeah Bluedot”. There comes a point in the day when the family friendly mantra isn’t really appropriate any more. There’s nothing that can be done about it, but there were kids in the arena who were a definite tripping hazard.
But, fair play, different people have different approaches to festivals such as this. Some (quite a lot perhaps) aren’t really here for the music, or even the science. There are plenty of people just chilling and socialising in the fields away from the main arena and if that’s enough for them, then that’s just cool. We’re a mainly music based website, so that’s our natural approach to a music event. But it is clear priorities are not all shared in the same way.
— Ježibaba (@Djinja_Ninja) July 22, 2018
Off to the main stage, then to catch a bit of Baloji. The sun was threatening to show its face through clouds, almost in recognition of Baloji’s perfect soundtrack to a summer’s day. His blend of African funk was enjoyable, but (for this writer, at least) ultimately disposable and it wasn’t quite hitting the spot with us, although there were plenty dancers in the crowd who clearly felt differently. We went off in search of richer pickings.
First off FEHM in Nebula. Described in the festival programme as brooding, synth led, post punk, this seemed just the ticket. And that was pretty much what we got. A curious cross between The Damned and The Pet Shop Boys, lead singer Paul Riddle even has a Dave Vanian look about him with his slicked back dyed blonde hair. This was a no compromise performance and Nebula was healthily busy for it.
FEHM was the first of a trio of acts on the outlying stages we’d highlighted in the Bluedot app for this evening. The next one was Hookworms on the Orbit stage. As FEHM were closing out their set we trotted along to pop our Hookworms cherry, not having seen them before.
We weren’t the only one with the same idea, though and Orbit was becoming a seething sweaty mass of bodies as Hookworms took no prisoners with their fast paced heavy industrial pop. It was terrific stuff, but there’s only so much heat we can take.
Before the third of our outlying trio, there was the no small matter of Gary Numan on the main Lovell stage. Opening with an explosive Everything Comes Down to This, Numan certainly looks the part with his now familiar knee length khaki flowing jacket as he prowls the stage. He doesn’t let up from there for an hour. It’s powerful visceral and raw. The bass punches you in the chest for every note. The synths and guitars swirl around, not in any kind of breezy way, but as though they’re caught in a tornado.
And then there’s Numan’s voice – haunting and piercing all the time. In contrast to Wayne Coyne last night he hardly acknowledges the audience, but after delivering a performance of this quality and magnitude we’ll let him off that minor niggle. Hell, he even played Cars and you should have heard the roar from the crowd at the opening note for that one.
Back to our trio, though and the third one was Warmduscher in Nebula. This was the best of the three, with a kind of Birthday Party punk feel. Punchy, angry punk. Urgent, jangly guitar, heavyweight bass and irregular rhythms had the Nebula audience bouncing along in agreement. It’s one of our benchmark tests of a festival – a good one will throw up something new and special. Well Bluedot managed that in the form of Warmduscher.
Main stage headliners Future Islands drew a big enough crowd, but to be quite honest it felt a bit like they were having a hard time following Gary Numan. Don’t get us wrong, they’re a great band, but Numan’s The Man. On just about any other line up, there’d be no argument they are worthy headliners, but tonight it didn’t seem to fit quite right.
As a night cap we headed over to Nebula where Liverpool’s Barberos went to town with the most extraordinary imagery, including space beings landing in ape world and a stage invasion of gorillas. Then the usual two masked drummers took up their usual positions opposite each other and started bashing out rhythms with the gorilla and alien madness going on around them. Supersonic synths and crazed drumming ensued. In due course the stage invasion disappeared round the back and Barberos did their thing, which is a kind of duelling banjos but with drums instead. It’s mad and crazy. And quite brilliant.
Sunday. As has become routine for this weekend we arrive on site and then ponder the food and drink choices (steak pie, mash and gravy this time). Suitably nourished we catch a bit of New Order / Veyu sounding JW Ridley in Nebula before taking up position in front of Warm Digits on the main stage. Here we’re treated to a masterclass in how to disco when there are only two of you in the band. Tremendous.
We were intrigued by the sound of Langham Research Centre. They first got together in August 2003, at which point they were all producers at BBC Radio 3. There are four of them and, as well as composing their own music, they perform works by the likes of John Cage. The quartet concentrates on works which can only be performed by a group working with vintage technology like reel-to-reel tape, phonograph cartridges and oscillators.
It was a peculiar sight to see the four of them sitting on stage creating loops, twiddling knobs and playing samples from old film or radio. Just as PSB may have been the perfect Bluedot fit for the main stage, this band of radio geeks were made for Bluedot, of that there is no doubt. It was all gentle and unthreatening but rather enjoyable too.
Perhaps surprisingly given the demographic, the crowds started gathering early in the Orbit tent for Acid Mothers Temple. This curious collective of psych heads did seem like an uneasy choice for this festival.
But that’s OK, we’re big fans and uneasy or not we were more than happy to see them. It was fast and furious, relentless, adrenaline inducing and sternum pummelling mayhem.
All long hair, screaming guitars and ridiculously anarchic drumming. This is precisely the sort of thing that gets us giddy at Getintothis and giddy we got. Probably vying with Numan for the set of the weekend. Close to perfect had it not been for the tech issues with Higashi Hiroshis‘ synth that stopped working for the last number and required him to go backstage in search of a screwdriver.
The band played on and he got it working eventually, which drew a massive cheer. Just as well that one was getting on for 20 minutes long.
Vessels electronic krautrock-esque set had the heads bouncing in Orbit and went down a storm. But it was hot in there and we needed to get some air after a while.
Boy Azooga seemed genuinely chuffed to have an audience in Nebula “especially when it’s so nice out there and we know what a precious commodity the sun is on this island”. They’re a good band with some good indie rock tunes and they rattled through an upbeat 35 minutes or so to general approval.
Snapped Ankles were attempting to out do Barberos in the surreal stakes appearing on stage in long shaggy robes and head dresses. They then proceeded to hit things while screaming and wailing into the mics accompanied by bass, synths, a theremin and the occasional guitar.
If it sounds odd, then it was. That’s not to say it wasn’t effective – it was. Very. The jumpy rhythms of Devo are the most obvious reference point. It was all a bit mad and seemingly chaotic, but while not taking themselves too seriously, it was a great set.
For most people the day if not the weekend was about the Chemical Brothers and it seemed like the whole of Bluedot had packed into the main arena for this one last hurrah of the weekend.
With amazing visuals and animations projected onto the back of the stage there was no expense spared for this one. “Free Yourself – Dance” was the message in the first 10 minutes. There wasn’t a soul in the Arena who ignored the exaltation and the place was proper jumping as far back as we could see.
With the International Space Station reportedly overhead taking in the action below, it’s fair to say Bluedot had gone truly interstellar in 2018 – job done.
Getintothis’ best selections from the weekend
Earth – Luke Jerram
This is one of the first things you see as you walk onto the site and it is a statement of intent from the organisers. It was fantastic to see so many people reacting to the sculpture, engaging with it, taking pictures, talking about it and just simply appreciating its meaning. It’s a powerful piece and it’s positioning can’t be anything other than deliberate – low enough to have impact, yet just out of reach. Peter Goodbody
Gary Numan – Lovell Stage
Gary Numan, being one of my late teen music heroes I wasn’t sure what to expect from him. But wow what a set. Two years older than me (and I’m old) and yet he was moving about on stage like a teenager on Red Bull. His new stuff was great but was nice to also hear a couple of oldies in the set. Loved it! Warren Millar
Barberos – Nebula
Liverpool’s duelling drummers and synth maestros Barberos provided one of the most surreal sets of the weekend, complete with weird space beings and stage invading gorillas, it was anarchic and baffling. But in a good way. Just splendid. Peter Goodbody
FEHM – Nebula
Leeds based Synth five piece band. Lead vocals from Paul Riddle were amazing . Bit like a modern day New Order. Warren Millar
Acid Mothers Temple – Orbit
Crazy psych madness going on to a crowd that appeared not to know anything much about them. I heard one bloke in the gents afterwards telling his mate “I’ve just seen this mad Japanese band. Don’t know their name, but they were awesome”. Save that I did know their name and I’ve seen them before, that will do as a review. Probably the best set of the weekend, even despite the tech issues. Peter Goodbody
Warm Digits – Lovell Stage
Newcastle based duo who wowed the early main stage punters on the Sunday with their live drum, guitar and electronic mix of great music. Warren Millar
Plastic Mermaids – Lovell Stage
Plastic Mermaids, one of the first acts on the main stage on Friday, full of energy and a great female choir all decked out in gold tin foil …… What’s not to like! Warren Millar
Baloji – Lovell Stage
Bella Union’s Congolese-born, Belgium-based new signing proved the main man of Saturday afternoon with a blockbuster set oozing sex, a stew of funk, Afro calypso grooves, swaggering blues and a message about refugees. Switching a variety of headgear he reduced the large gathering throng to a sweaty mess as bodies gyrated in synchronicity to his while also spinning out the official FIFA World Cup anthem. Best of all was his introduction to the band’s live guitarist, Dizzy Mandjeku – a legend in African music circles – as the previously seated gent creaked to his feet before raising his instrument behind his head and imitating Hendrix proceeded to pull off some virtuoso licks. Peter Guy
Re-Tros – Orbit
Chinese noise-makers Re-Tros have been on my bucket list for a while ever since I heard their recent album, Before the Applause. Extremely complex rhythms, synths and goodness only knows what else from this trio of multi-instrumentalists. This was a well polished performance that didn’t disappoint. Might have been up there as a contender for set of the weekend had it not been for AMT. Peter Goodbody
A sense of calm and meditation in the inflatable maze was a surprise highlight of the weekend. Unless you’ve been before, there is little that can prepare you for this gentlest of assaults on the senses. The changing light and the ambient tunes make for an almost magical experience.
Images by Getintothis’ Warren Millar, Peter Guy and Peter Goodbody